Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced that the government will set out its strategy for taking the country out of lockdown next month.
In a Commons statement on 27 January, Mr Johnson said a strategy for the “gradual and phased” easing of the England-wide lockdown will be revealed in the week commencing 22 Feburary.
Lockdown in place until March
While plans for relaxing current lockdown restrictions will be announced at the end of next month, Mr Johnson has said that England’s national lockdown will remain in place until at least 8 March.
The Prime Minister confirmed that schools will not immediately reopen after February half-term and new border restrictions will be put in place for travellers arriving in the UK from certain countries.
If schools reopen on 8 March, the “economic and social restrictions” could be eased “then or thereafter”, but this date is dependent on progress in vaccinating the most vulnerable by mid-February, and allowing time for the jabs to take effect.
Mr Johnson told MPs that the first sign of normality beginning to return should be pupils going back to their classrooms, but he warned that the UK still remains in a “perilous situation”, with more than 37,000 patients now in hospital with Covid-19.
However, by mid-February, it is hoped that more will be known about the effect of the vaccines in preventing hospitalisations and further deaths.
The Prime Minister said: “So far our efforts do appear to have reduced the R rate but we do not yet have enough data to know exactly how soon it will be safe to reopen our society and economy.”
“What we do know is that we remain in a perilous situation with more than 37,000 patients now in hospital with Covid, almost double the peak of the first wave, but the overall picture should be clearer by mid-February. By then we will know much more about the effect of vaccines in preventing hospitalisations and deaths.”
“So I can tell the House that when Parliament returns from recess in the week commencing 22nd February subject to the full agreement of the House, we intend to set out the results of that review and publish our plan for taking the country out of lockdown.
“That plan will of course depend on the continued success of our vaccination programme, the capacity of the NHS and on deaths falling at the pace we would expect as more people are inoculated.”
Caution from experts
While the potential easing of lockdown restrictions now looks to be on the horizon, experts have warned that relaxing measures could still lead to a rise in cases.
England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty has warned even a “very small change” while cases are high could cause a rapid resurgence, while chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance has warned against “getting too hooked” on specific dates for easingmeasures.
Experts from Edinburgh University said releasing all measures at the end of April – once all those in the first phase of the vaccination programme covering over-50s, those in high-risk groups and frontline health and social workers are expected to have been offered a jab – could still lead to a huge surge in cases.
Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the university said a “gradual relaxing” would be “much more likely to keep the pressure off the NHS than any wholesale relaxation”.
Tougher border controls
The suggestion that lockdown restrictions could start to be eased from March comes as the government announced tougher border controls are to be put in place.
Travellers returning to the UK from “red list” countries will now be sent to quarantine hotels for 10 days, with passengers to be “met at the airport and transported directly into quarantine”.
The quarantine covers countries which are already subject to a travel ban due to concern over mutant strains of coronavirus, including South Africa, Portugal and South American nations.
Kenya, Ethiopia, the United Arab Emirates and Nigeria could also be added.
Mr Johnson confirmed that the UK’s ban on leisure travel will be enforced at airports and ports.
He said: “I want to make clear that, under the stay-at-home regulations, it is illegal to leave home to travel abroad for leisure purposes and we will enforce this at ports and airports by asking people why they are leaving and instructing them to return home if they do not have a valid reason to travel.”