Artillery Row

The PM’s plan for lifting lockdown

A leisurely unlocking to prevent a rise in infections, or something more political?

The Prime Minister has made his long-awaited (and long-leaked) speech in the House of Commons on unlocking the country. The big headline is the date 21 June, the moment the government hopes everything can be back to normal. But everything in the roadmap is caveated. There will be no return to the tier system but there could be a return to localised restrictions if there are regional outbreaks. The 21 June date is set out as being the “earliest” that things can be back to normal, not the latest as many would have liked. And everything must meet four tests to keep the keys turning on all the locks. In the House of Commons the Prime Minister said the vaccination programme has “dramatically changed the odds in our favour” and hoped it would be a “one-way road to freedom” but added that unlocking too quickly makes this less likely. He said he understood people who wanted them to move faster and sympathised with the strain placed on businesses but addressing these groups said: “today the end really is in sight, and a wretched year will give way to a Spring and a Summer that will be very different and incomparably better than the picture we see around us today”.

To prevent another lockdown, Boris Johnson has introduced four tests which he says will be used to determine whether the “roadmap” can be used as planned:

1, Is the Vaccine deployment working?

2, Are the vaccines effective?

3, Are infection rates surging, causing increased hospitalisations?

4, Have the risks changed with new variants of the virus?

The latest data put on the PM’s desk suggests that the Pfizer jab is working well and there are early positive signs from the Oxford jab.

Aside from these tests the government will conduct four reviews to determine a few variables in their four steps for unlocking the country.  The first review is on whether “Covid status certification” can help to reopen the economy – vaccine passports in all but name – but it also includes looking at rapid testing to allow entry into a large venue like a nightclub. The second review will look at how large events can return safely with a pilot to start in April. The third review conducted by the Department for Transport is due to look at the potential for greater inbound and outbound travel and will report on 12 April, although the Government say international travel won’t resume until 17th May at the earliest. The fourth review will be on social distancing, facemasks and working from home and is expected to conclude before the introduction of step 4.

Provided all the four tests are met, there will be four steps for re-opening the economy and returning back to normal.

Step 1 comes into force from March 8. All children will return to schools and colleges and after school sports clubs can resume. But children in Secondary schools will have to wear facemasks in lessons “for a limited time” and will be tested twice-weekly. At this point one person can meet somebody else in outdoor public spaces for a picnic or a coffee “on a 1 – 1 basis”. Care home residents are allowed to have one named, regular visitor if they are tested and wear PPE. The “Stay at Home” slogan will remain in place.

The second part of Step 1 comes into force from 29 March when the “Stay at Home” slogan will end and a new slogan “Stay Local”, comes into force. People will still be asked to work from home. Groups of 6 people, or larger groups of up to two households are allowed to meet outdoors. Apparently this date was picked because it’s when most schools will have broken up for Easter and so it will allow people to meet during the Easter holidays. At this point outdoor sports facilities will reopen and people will be able to play things like tennis and basketball. There will still be no overseas travel allowed other than for the previously specified reasons.

Step 2, which comes into force from no earlier than 12 April sees non-essential retail coming back.  Personal care premises like nail salons and hairdressers can reopen as can libraries and museums. Most outdoor recreation like theme parks and zoos can come back. But the social rules still apply, so if you’re going to a museum you’d be expected to go with your own household because it’s indoors. Gyms and Swimming pools will reopen but hospitality venues can only reopen for outdoor purposes only, and it’s table service only so a beer garden is the closest you’ll get to a bar. But bad news for scotch egg makers, the “substantial meal” rule has gone. Self-contained accommodation where indoor facilities are not shared with other households will be permitted so holidaymakers could stay in a cottage, but only with their own household. Funerals can continue with up to 30 people. Weddings and wakes rise from 6 to 15 people. Driving lessons will be back.

Step 3 will come into place no earlier than 17 May. Household mixing indoors and overnight stays will no longer be illegal. This is the first chance multiple households can go on holiday together without facing arrest but the rule of 6 or two household rule will apply indoors. Most outdoors social contact rules will be lifted and the rule of 6 or two household rule will be scrapped. With Step 3, gatherings outdoors will be allowed up to 30 people.

This is the first point that indoor hospitality will open. Cinemas, theatres and children’s play areas will be allowed to re-open their doors. The rest of the accommodation sector like B & Bs and hotels will reopen if they haven’t already gone bust, and indoor sports will be permitted.

Performances and sporting events can take place indoors with up to 1000 people or a half full venue (whichever number is lower). Outdoor seated venues can host up to 10,000 people or a quarter full, whichever is lower.  Up to 30 people will be able to attend weddings, receptions and wakes.

Step 4 comes into force no earlier than 21st June. This is when the government hopes to have removed all restrictions on everything up to nightclubs but there is a taskforce looking into whether people could be tested before going into large venues or whether a vaccine passport could be used. There will also be a “social distancing review” ahead of this step.

All in all, this is leaving Lockdown in the most leisurely fashion possible, and the temptation must be to think, as Paul Goodman at ConservativeHome does, that the PM will not be unhappy to be proven wrong. The May elections loom and there’s every chance some very low hurdles are going to be cleared, and restrictions will end up being lifted ahead of this length schedule.

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