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COVID-19: England’s legal limits on social contact set to end in June

Written by on 23 February 2021

The prime minister has said England is going to start “reclaiming our freedoms” – with all legal limits on people’s social contact set to end by 21 June.

Unveiling his long-awaited roadmap for relaxing the country’s third COVID-19 lockdown, Boris Johnson said he hoped the nation was on a “one-way road to freedom” after a “wretched year”, with spring and summer “incomparably better” than the current situation.

“The end really is in sight,” he declared.

But he later told a Downing Street news conference he could not “guarantee” that easing would be irreversible, saying: “The intention is that it should be irreversible.”

After schools reopen on 8 March and some outdoor restrictions are lifted three weeks later, Mr Johnson said the next step was set to be the reopening of beer gardens and hairdressers from 12 April at the earliest.

The PM told MPs the dates in his four-stage plan were not set in stone and represented the earliest possible points at which the restrictions specified could be lifted.

Key dates include:

• 12 April at the earliest: Non-essential retail, hairdressers, nail salons, gyms and outdoor areas in hospitality venues (such as beer gardens) set to reopen – along with libraries, museums, zoos and theme parks. Self-contained accommodation will reopen, but people will only be able to stay with members of their household

• 17 May at the earliest: Pubs, restaurants, cinemas, hotels, B&Bs and children’s play areas set to open their doors once more, with crowds of up to 10,000 allowed at performances and sporting events. Most rules on social contact outdoors will be lifted, while two households or groups of up to six people will be allowed to mix indoors. Up to 30 people will be allowed at weddings, funerals, wakes, receptions and christenings

• 21 June at the earliest: All legal limits on social contact set to be removed, with the remaining sectors of the economy reopened. Ministers also hope to make a decision on whether restrictions can be lifted on weddings

With restrictions for some businesses set to continue into the summer, Mr Johnson indicated that taxpayer-funded support schemes will be extended, telling MPs: “We will not pull the rug out.”

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PM’s ‘status certification’ review

The advice on social distancing will be updated “as soon as possible” and no later than step three (17 May), meaning friends and family may finally be allowed to hug each other again.

A series of reviews have also been launched by the government, including whether “COVID status certification” could help reopen the economy.

This would involve allowing people who have received a vaccine or returned a negative test to do things which would not be possible for those who could not prove their status.

Mr Johnson acknowledged there were ethical issues around the idea, but said: “There may well be a role for certification but we just need to get it right.”

The rules around international travel will also be reviewed, with 17 May earmarked as the earliest possible date that Britons can head off on a foreign holiday.

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Starmer urges PM not to waste public sacrifices

The PM said his roadmap would “guide us cautiously but irreversibly towards reclaiming our freedoms”.

He said the threat from the virus “remains substantial”, but added the restrictions were able to be relaxed because of the “resolve of the British people” and the UK’s “extraordinary” vaccination programme.

Mr Johnson said lifting lockdown would result in “more cases, more hospitalisations and sadly more deaths” regardless of when measures were eased, “because there will always be some vulnerable people who are not protected by the vaccines”.

But the PM said there was “no credible” route to totally eradicating coronavirus and achieving a “zero-COVID” status, adding that restrictions which “debilitate our economy, our physical and mental wellbeing and the life chances of our children” cannot remain in place “indefinitely”.

There will be a five-week gap between each stage of the roadmap, with the announcement that England will move to the next phase to be made at least seven days in advance.

If one of the stages is delayed, that will have a knock-on effect for the others, as the five-week gap will be maintained.

Professor Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, said the gap “allows us to see whether it’s [the easing] had an effect and then to make a judgment as to whether that’s material to making the next decision”.

He told the Number 10 briefing that the pandemic was not over, but “this is the point where we can have a steady, risk-based, data-driven opening up”.

And he said COVID-19 was “likely to be a problem, in particular, in the winter for the next few winters”.

This was echoed by Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, who said “it may be necessary next winter to have things like mask-wearing in certain situations”.

Facing MPs, Mr Johnson defended the pace at which measures will be relaxed, saying that moving any faster would “increase the risk of us having to reverse course and reimpose restrictions”.

He told them that progress would be “led by data not dates” and subject to four tests continuing to be met.

The PM said “we must always be humble in the face of nature” and that he would adopt a “cautious approach”.

“But I really also believe that the vaccination programme has dramatically changed the odds in our favour, and it is on that basis that we can now proceed,” he stressed.

However, Mr Johnson said the government could not rule out reimposing local or regional restrictions “if evidence suggests they are necessary to contain or suppress a new variant which escapes the vaccines”.

Sir Keir Starmer urged the PM to listen to his scientific advisers and not lockdown sceptics on the Conservative backbenches.

“If he does not, we will waste all the sacrifices of the last 12 months,” the Labour leader warned.

MP Mark Harper, leader of the COVID Recovery Group of Tories, again asked Mr Johnson why restrictions will continue beyond the end of April, when the government hopes to have offered everyone in the top nine priority groups a vaccine.

The PM said in response that a “significant minority” would have refused a jab or not been given sufficient protection, which could allow the virus to “rip through those groups”.

Conservative MP Steve Baker, deputy chair of the group, said the pace of relaxing measures “will be a hammer blow for aviation, for pubs, for restaurants, hotels, gyms and pools, the arts and the establishment”.

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