Bumps expected on road back to something like post-Covid normality

Covid rules

The 60-plus pages of the road map out of lockdown sets out in detail the steps ministers hope to take to open the economy and society. They also lay bare the uncertainties and consequences.

The document warns bluntly that vaccines on their own may not be enough to prevent “a significant proportion” of people becoming infected as restrictions are lifted. The aim is to end the pandemic even if Covid becomes endemic. So what is the plan, what are the caveats and how will the government respond if things go wrong?

Step one

The nearly four-month journey to reopen the country will begin on March 8, when schools return for the first time since Christmas. After-school activities and sports will also restart.

Most higher education students will have to wait longer. Those on practical courses such as medicine will be allowed back but the rest will have to wait for a review after Easter.

There will be few other changes, except that people will be allowed to meet socially one on one outdoors rather than having to exercise together. Care home residents will be allowed visits.

Bigger changes come on March 29, when small groups will be allowed outdoors. An unlimited number of people from two households, or up to six from three or more households, can meet outdoors, letting families gather in gardens for lunch on Easter Sunday.

The government’s stay-at-home order will be lifted and instead people will be asked to stay in their local area.

The end of March will bring the return of organised sport, with tennis courts, football pitches, outdoor pools and golf courses able to reopen.

People will be asked to work from home where possible; going to second homes or on holiday abroad is banned.

Step two

In April a return to some normality is likely: shopping, getting a haircut or visiting an art gallery will be possible. Non-essential retail, personal care services, libraries and museums are all pencilled in to reopen on April 12.

Households will not be allowed to mix indoors, so going to the shops or a museum with a friend is not allowed.

Socialising will be confined to the outdoor tables of pubs and restaurants. There will be no curfew, and pubs and bars will not have to serve food, avoiding the tortured debate last autumn over whether a scotch egg constituted a substantial meal.

Gyms and indoor pools will reopen but not for friends to exercise together. Zoos and theme parks, campsites and self-catering holiday homes will open. Funerals will be allowed with up to 30 people, and the number permitted to attend weddings will rise from six to 15. The government plans to pilot events with larger crowd sizes and reduced social distancing, using mass testing.

Step three

By May 17 life may look much like last summer. Gatherings of up to 30 will be allowed outdoors, and two households or six people will be able to mix indoors.

Pubs and restaurants will be able to serve food and drinks indoors. Cinemas, play areas, hotels and B&Bs will open, as will adult indoor group sports. Cultural and sporting events will resume. Theatres, concert halls and other large venues can reopen. Larger indoor venues can put on shows with a maximum capacity of 1,000 or until they are half full, whichever figure is lower.

Outdoor venues will be allowed to open with a capacity of up to 4,000 people or half full, whichever is lower. There is good and bad news for May weddings. They will be allowed to go ahead, as will baptisms and bar mitzvahs, but with a maximum of 30 guests.

Step four

By June 21, the longest day of the year, ministers hope to have eased all restrictions. Nightclubs could reopen and late summer festivals may go ahead. All limits on social contact are due to be removed and advice and guidance will replace legal strictures. For the first time there will be no limit on wedding guests, or any other large celebration.

But this is by far the most heavily caveated section of the document. By this stage the vast majority of adults will have been vaccinated. Ministers are aware that if the vaccine programme is unable to keep new infections to a manageable number then restrictions may have to be in place for the long haul.

Pushing back the timetable
The dates for reopening are aspirational. Each stage is separated by a five-week interval — four weeks for scientists to assess the effects, and a week for businesses to prepare. If for any reason one stage is delayed then this will have a knock-on effect on all the other dates.

The road map sets out four tests to assess whether it is safe to move on. The first is that the vaccine programme runs to schedule. Second, the evidence must show that vaccines are reducing hospital admissions and deaths. Ministers will also be looking at infection rates. Finally, if any new variants emerge that are potentially vaccine-resistant then the easements could be halted.

Local lockdowns

Ministers are prepared to impose local lockdowns where necessary, such as if new vaccine-resistant strains of the virus appear. These restrictions could include instructions to stay at home and would be accompanied by surge testing and rigorous contract tracing.

In addition, if the easing of lockdown puts pressure on the NHS, local restrictions can be reimposed.

Stages out of lockdown

March 8

Step 0ne A
• Schools and colleges reopen.
• Socialising outdoors is allowed with one person from outside your household.
• Weddings attended by six people are allowed, even if there is no exceptional circumstance.
• Each care home resident is allowed one named visitor.
• Up to 30 people allowed to attend funerals.

March 29

Step one B
• Two households or groups of up to six people are allowed to socialise outdoors.
• Outdoor sports allowed again.

April 12

Step two
• Hairdressers reopen.
• Shops reopen.
• Pubs and restaurants reopen for outdoor customers only.
• Gyms, pools and indoor leisure facilities reopen.
• Outdoor attractions such as theme parks and zoos reopen.
• Overnight stays allowed away from your main residence and self-contained accommodation including caravans and rental properties reopen but you must remain with people from your own household. • The number of people allowed at weddings and funerals will increase to 15.
• Two visitors will be allowed per care home resident.

May 17

Step three
• The rule of six for outdoor socialising becomes rule of 30.
• Socialising indoors is allowed for two households or for up to six people from three or more households.
• Pubs and restaurants open indoor spaces.
• Hotels and B&Bs reopen. Indoor attractions and cinemas and theatres reopen.
• Indoor sports classes resume.
• Concerts and live events return with limits on capacity.
• Holidays abroad allowed, subject to a government review.
• Overnight stays with friends are allowed.
• The number of people allowed at baptisms, weddings and funerals will increase to 30.

June 21

Step four
• Nightclubs reopen.
• Summer festivals to go ahead
• All limits on social contact indoors and outdoors are lifted.
• All limits on the number of people allowed at weddings and funerals lifted.
• Working from home could end and social-distancing measures could be lifted — but this is subject to a review.

Treading carefully
The government has set four tests for easing restrictions:

1. Jabs continue successfully
All vulnerable people are due to have a first dose by April 15, and all adults by end of July. Aim is two million doses a week, rising to four million a week by end of April.

2. Evidence shows vaccines cut hospitalisations and deaths
Data published yesterday shows that the vaccines are cutting hospitalisations by more than three quarters. The exact figures will be refined but set a rough benchmark.

3. Infection rates do not risk a surge in hospitalisations
Case numbers are no longer the key issue; they are important only in that they don’t lead to hospitals being overwhelmed. Vaccination weakens the link between infections and hospitalisations and deaths but does not break it. Boris Johnson says he cannot allow the virus to spike again. The central aim here will be to stop hospital occupancy exceeding the 39,000 recorded last month and, ideally, the 22,000 last spring.

4. New variants do not change assessment of risks fundamentally
Data shows that the vaccines work against the Kent variant but there is concern that they may not be so effective against the South African variant. Mutations are cropping up. So far numbers are small but if they spread widely the brakes slam on.

Not part of the assessment: R rate
Keeping the reproductive rate of the virus below one has been central to strategy over the past year. But the government now accepts that cases will rise. The goal of vaccination is to minimise illness and turn Covid into a seasonal infection like flu.