Speculation about the “end of lockdown” in England is reaching fever pitch.
Tory MPs are demanding Boris Johnson ends ALL lockdown restrictions from April 30, once all the most vulnerable have had a first vaccine dose, as total first doses look set to hit 15million today.
Meanwhile it’s thought you’ll be allowed a picnic in the park with one person from one other household from as soon as March 8.
And the Mail on Sunday is claiming pub beer gardens could reopen for business by Easter Sunday on April 4.
But travel quarantine, masks and social distancing could all stay long into the future as we face the risk of new Covid variants undermining the vaccine.
And government sources warn nothing is set in stone – as it all depends on data about how fast cases are coming down, and what impact we’re getting from the vaccine rollout so far.
That crucial data will only arrive in the coming week, ahead of Boris Johnson announcing a “roadmap” with confirmed plans on February 22.
And scientists are warning against lifting the lockdown too early – because even if deaths are avoided at first, it could allow a new mutation to bloom which resists the vaccine.
Prof Tim Spector, who leads the Covid symptom study, said he can see a “scenario” where people carry on using masks and regularly washing hands long into the future.
He said: “We’re not going to suddenly wake up one day and say we’re all cured like in the Hollywood movies and wave flags.
“It’s going to be a slow decrease out of this – we’re going to need to be cautious about new variants coming in, keeping an eye on how our vaccines are doing.
“So it makes sense to be sensible for a while longer while still keeping the vast majority of our social life, economic life and educational life going.”
So what do we know? It’s becoming clearer there will be a three-step plan, with schools opening first, then non-essential shops, then hospitality like pubs and restaurants.
“Whilst there is some reason for cautious optimism, we remain in a difficult situation, with the pressures on the NHS still very significant. We have to go at the pace that the latest data and evidence allows,” one source said.
“Our biggest priority remains schools, and we will set out our plan for reopening them, and gradually reopening our economy and society on February 22.”
Here’s what we know so far about that plan and how it’s shaping up.
February 15: Government reviews the data
This is when the review of the third lockdown in England, as set by the Prime Minister at the start of January, begins.
In this week the Government should have a clearer picture of whether the lockdown has worked, and crucially, what impact the vaccine is having on case numbers.
Plans will be brought forward the following week, though reports have suggested the PM could make a special announcement in this week on schools – which he promised two weeks’ notice for reopening.
Importantly, this is also the deadline for offering the first dose of a vaccine to all 15million of the most vulnerable people in the UK, which ministers believe they will hit.
They are all over-70s; all elderly care home residents and their carers; all shielders; and frontline NHS and social care staff.
After this, officials will move on to administering first doses to the next priority groups – all over-50s and younger “at risk” groups.
Separately, in the second half of February the government’s advisors are meant to rule on how priority will work for the final phase of the vaccine rollout – in other words, whether teachers, shop workers and police will get it first.
Finally, February 15 is the date when hotel quarantine will finally come into force. It was announced three weeks earlier. Brits returning from 33 ‘red list’ countries, where travel for non-Brits is already banned, will have to be in guarded hotels for 10 days.
February 22: The road map is revealed
Boris Johnson will set his “road map” on February 22 spelling out how lockdown can be eased over the coming months.
The Prime Minister is expected to explain to residents of England which restrictions will be eased first and when, and what criteria must be met for each step to happen.
Mr Johnson has suggested there will be three stages to the roadmap. First schools will reopen, then non-essential shops, then hospitality.
It’s thought the regional tiers we saw last year are likely to be dropped in favour of a nationwide approach.
February 25: Vote in Parliament
It appears this is when the lockdown roadmap will be debated in Parliament.
The government has announced the Commons will debate a “proposal for a national education routemap for schools and colleges in response to the Covid-19 outbreak”.
Expect a mutiny from Tory lockdown ‘sceptic’ MPs if they consider the path out of restrictions is not fast enough.
March 8: Schools hopefully start to reopen – and picnics with one friend may be allowed
The Prime Minister has set March 8 as the earliest date for the reopening of schools in England.
It was expected there would be a staggered return, with primary school years returning before secondary schools.
But more recently, reports have suggested the “optimistic” PM wants to reopen all England’s schools in one go – despite the risk of an infection spike. The Sunday Telegraph said the return of secondary schools could be delayed by a week.
Currently, all pupils are being homeschooled, except for the children of key workers and vulnerable kids, who continued to go to school for face-to-face learning.
The reason for the delay from February 15 is that it takes three weeks for immunity to have some effect among the most vulnerable who’ve had a first vaccine dose.
Meanwhile, it’s understood ministers are looking at relaxing rules slightly on outdoor “recreation” at an early stage – allowing two people from two households to have a coffee or picnic in the park.
In November’s lockdown, two people from different households were allowed to meet in an outdoor public space for exercise or recreation, such as a picnic or coffee in the park. But in the new lockdown that began on January 4, the “recreation” clause was removed and two people from different households could only meet for exercise.
A government source told the Mirror “the next thing we’d look at”, after opening schools, may be expanding outdoor activity to allow recreation once again, if the data allows.
Reports suggest some outdoor sports like golf could return in the month of March.
March 31: Lockdown rules reviewed, and second doses begin in earnest. Non-essential shops could be open again
This is the date the current lockdown legislation for England ends. MPs will have to approve any extension to lockdown rules after this date.
By this point, the process of giving first doses to people aged 50 to 69 and younger ‘at risk’ groups is meant to be well under way.
Officially the target to offer these 17million people their first dose is the end of April, but sources have claimed it could go quicker.
But there’s one big thing that could scupper the timetable at this point. This is the time when the NHS has to start giving hundreds of thousands of people per day their second dose.
That could gum up capacity and make it slower to get new people through the door for first doses.
Meanwhile, non-essential shops – the next thing to reopen after schools – should be starting to open up slightly before or after this date, if all goes well.
April 4: Easter Sunday – pubs could start to reopen outdoors
Easter Sunday – and a key deadline for Tory MPs who want the lockdown eased to help the economy, despite fears about the virus.
Tory lockdown sceptics have joined forces with the hospitality industry to demand some kind of reopening for pubs and restaurants by this date.
Reports suggest the PM is looking at reopening pubs by this weekend, outdoors only. But that would mean he needs to sandwich in the reopening of schools, many shops and some hospitality in only a month’s time span.
It’s been widely reported that previous restrictions – such as the 10pm curfew and “substantial meal” requirement – will be scrapped.
But there’s no firm date when pubs would reopen completely including indoors, and it’s likely ‘Covid secure’ measures would still be in place.
Professor Steven Riley, a member of the SPI-M modelling group, said that while the rollout of the vaccination programme had been “incredibly successful” it did not mean controls could simply be dropped.
“No vaccine is perfect. We are certainly going to be in the situation where we can allow more infection in the community but there is a limit,” he told the BBC Radio Today programme.
“I think scientists are genuinely worried. We don’t want to show that it is an excellent but not perfect vaccine by having another large wave in the UK.”
April 30: All the most vulnerable get a first vaccine dose – as Tory MPs demand lockdown ends completely
This is the deadline to offer a first dose of the vaccine to everyone in the nine priority groups vulnerable to Covid-19.
That is all over-50s, NHS and care workers, care home residents, shielders and non-shielders “at risk” due to their health. These groups account for 99% of Covid deaths.
This has prompted Tory MPs on the Covid Recovery Group to demand a total end to all lockdown restrictions by this date.
But scientists have warned cases must be kept down among younger age groups to avoid dangerous mutations emerging in the UK.
And they have said some elements of the coronavirus response like masks and social distancing could be with us in the long run.
July: Second doses round off – but travel restrictions likely to stay
Second doses should be rounded off for the middle priority group, the over-50s.
It’s also one predicted date for all adults to finish being offered their first dose.
Officially the target is September for this, but government sources told the Sunday Telegraph it could be as soon as July.
If all adults have had a vaccine by this date, then summer holidays become more of a possibility.
But there will still be a ‘red list’ of countries requiring quarantine in hotels when Brits return. Matt Hancock has suggested that, if vaccines don’t work as well on new variants, this hotel quarantine system could last into the Autumn.
The Government aims to have offered a first dose of the vaccine to every adult by September. But lockdown restrictions are likely to have done most of their easing by this point, unless a new variant of Covid that resists vaccines takes hold in the UK.
Tentative reports suggest officials are hopeful that, by the end of August, all adults in the UK will have had both doses of the vaccine. This would allow a major reopening of society.
But officially the target is only to offer all adults a first dose by September.
Chris Whitty said August is “at the very optimistic end”.
Scientists are hopeful though. SAGE member Andrew Hayward said: “I think what we’ll see is a phased opening up as the vaccination levels increase, and then we will be more or less back to normal for the summer, I would imagine.”
The start of flu season, and mass vaccination against that disease. This may be combined with the re-vaccination of the most vulnerable against coronavirus at the end of 2021.
Scientists are unsure how long immunity will last from having the jab – with estimates of anything from five to nine months.
That means those currently getting the jab will likely need to have another one in October to protect them through next winter.
AstraZeneca and Oxford have said vaccine “booster shots” against new coronavirus variants should be ready by the Autumn. We just have to hope a new variant hasn’t taken hold by that point.
What effect these variants will have on lockdown rules – well, it’s just too early to say.