Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson, wearing a face mask to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, visits a pharmaceutical manufacturing facility during a visit to the north east of England on February 13, 2021.
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LONDON — U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is set to announce Monday how and when lockdown restrictions will start to be lifted in England.
Government ministers are expected to discuss details of the “roadmap” for cautiously easing lockdown Monday morning. The prime minister will then outline the proposals to parliament later this afternoon, before giving a televised press conference in the evening.
Johnson is expected to set out the latest data on infection rates, hospitalizations and deaths, as well as early data showing the efficacy of coronavirus vaccines.
He is also expected to confirm that schools in England will reopen on March 8, and reveal more details on other restrictions set to be lifted.
The government said in a statement that the lifting of the country’s third lockdown, in place since early January, “will seek to balance health, economic and social factors with the very latest epidemiological data and advice.”
Data, not dates
Johnson has repeatedly said that the relaxation of measures will be cautious and driven by “data, not dates.” However, he has also said he wants the lifting of restrictions to be “irreversible” as he comes under pressure from members of his Conservative Party to re-open the economy.
Nonetheless, the government has maintained that the easing must be done in stages to avoid any leaps in infection rates.
“Today I’ll be setting out a roadmap to bring us out of lockdown cautiously,” Boris Johnson said in comments released ahead of Monday’s announcement.
“Our priority has always been getting children back into school which we know is crucial for their education as well as their mental and physical wellbeing, and we will also be prioritising ways for people to reunite with loved ones safely.”
Patients arrive in ambulances at the Royal London Hospital, on January 05, 2021 in London, England. The British Prime Minister made a national television address on Monday evening announcing England is to enter its third lockdown of the covid-19 pandemic. This week the UK recorded more than 50,000 new confirmed Covid cases for the seventh day in a row.
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“Our decisions will be made on the latest data at every step, and we will be cautious about this approach so that we do not undo the progress we have achieved so far and the sacrifices each and every one of you has made to keep yourself and others safe,” he added.
Four key tests
Johnson said the government has set four key tests which must be met before Britain can move through each step of the plan. These are:
- That the vaccine deployment program continues successfully.
- Evidence shows vaccines are sufficiently effective in reducing hospitalizations and deaths in those vaccinated.
- Infection rates do not risk a surge in hospitalizations which would put unsustainable pressure on the National Health Service.
- That its assessment of the risks is not fundamentally changed by new coronavirus variants of concern.
The government said that as the four tests are currently being met, the first step to lifting lockdown restrictions will proceed from March 8. The government has already said that care home residents will be able to have one visitor from that date.
After schools are reopened, the government has signaled that more measures could be eased to allow for limited outdoor socializing and sports.
The BBC reported Monday that from March 29, outdoor gatherings of either six people or two households are expected to be allowed, and that outdoor sports facilities such as tennis or basketball courts could reopen. The broadcaster added that “it is also understood that people will once again be able to travel out of their areas – although guidance will likely still recommend staying local, and overnight stays will not be permitted.” It’s uncertain when pubs, restaurants and non-essential shops will be allowed to reopen.
Variants and vaccinations
One silver lining in the U.K.’s experience of the pandemic has been its vaccination response. It was the first country in the world to approve a coronavirus vaccine, the candidate from Pfizer and BioNTech, and to roll out the shot in early December to its most elderly members of the population, care home workers and healthcare and hospital staff.
It then approved and starting administering the AstraZeneca/University of Oxford jab, a cheaper vaccine that’s produced in the U.K. and is easier to transport and store than rival jabs, allowing it to maintain an enviable rate of immunizations.
It has since expanded the rollout to more priority groups, such as all those deemed clinically vulnerable, and plans to vaccinate every U.K. adult citizen before the end of July, bringing forward that target from September. As of Saturday, over 17.5 million adults have received their first dose of a coronavirus vaccine, with over 600,000 having received both doses, according to government data.
Florian Hense, senior economist at Berenberg, told CNBC Monday that “the rest of the world is looking at the U.K.” to see how the lifting of restrictions goes.
“There are a number of issues why the U.K. should do relatively well over the next few months given that they’ve brought down infections so significantly … and that there is more news on how effective the vaccines are. But of course it’s going to take a couple of months to get back to more levels of normality,” he said.
Ed Davey, leader of the opposition Liberal Democrats party, told CNBC that the government was right to prioritize getting children back to school but questioned the logic of all pupils returning at once, a concern also raised by teachers and unions.
“If there was a fourth lockdown, because the prime minister gets it wrong again, then that would be a disaster for our schools and businesses,” he said. “So the Liberal Democrats are saying that of course we welcome a reopening, but let’s do it in a way that prevents and avoids a fourth lockdown.”
Data shows that new infections are falling, with early studies indicating that coronavirus vaccines also help to prevent transmission of the virus, as well as preventing serious disease.
In the last seven days, the U.K. has seen 77,432 new cases of the coronavirus, down 16.2% from the previous weekly count. The number of deaths in the last seven days, 3,414 fatalities, is also 27.4% lower than the previous seven-day count. Hospitalizations are also falling.