Boris Johnson’s blueprint to lift the lockdown started taking shape last night as plans for pubs, schools and offices emerged.
The Prime Minister is due to unveil his long-awaited road map toward the end of the month and is under pressure from his backbenchers to announce a major easing of restrictions – while scientists are urging caution.
Ministers are hammering out plans for a gradual loosening of measures that will gently unlock the economy and chart a return to normality as the vaccine rollout continues apace.
Government sources last night revealed a range of proposals being considered to reopen the nation’s pubs in the spring.
One told the Telegraph that hospitality could be given the green light to open in April but forced to operate under a strict ‘booze ban’ to stop drinkers straying from social distancing.
Another live discussion is for pubs to be permitted to sell takeaway pints from April before fully reopening in May, the Sun reports.
The PM has also tasked officials with ‘simplifying’ the rules for pubs, paving the way for the 10pm curfew to be ditched along with the requirement to order a ‘substantial meal’ with food.
Limiting indoor mixing is expected to be central to the Government’s strategy and venues will be encouraged to promote al fresco dining.
In other developments:
- The coronavirus R rate in England is confirmed to be below one for the first time since July, SAGE said today, the first time in six months Government scientists have been certain the outbreak is shrinking;
- Ministers have defended ‘quarantine hotel’ plans not being up and running until February 15 saying they take ‘time to prepare’;
- The government is working on vaccine passports to save summer holidays with Greece thought to be ready to waive restrictions if people can prove they have received jabs;
- Covid-19 vaccines being rolled out across the UK are safe, with the ‘overwhelming majority’ of suspected side-effects being mild, the regulator has said;
- The average daily vaccination rate has risen to 430,532 in the last seven days, equal to more than three million jabs a week.
While Britain has past the peak of this second wave of the outbreak, and both daily cases and deaths are now falling, scientists have stressed caution as 26,000 people are still fighting Covid-19 in stretched hospitals.
Mr Johnson is being lobbied by hawkish Tory MPs to axe all restrictions in May when the Government hopes to have offered a vaccine to all over-50s, meaning the 33million most vulnerable would have been inoculated.
Yesterday it emerged that some inside Downing Street believe it is possible that almost all adults could have received a jab by then.
In a leaked resignation letter to the PM, No10 adviser Samuel Kasumu outlined his ‘view to leaving at the end of May, a time when we would hope the vast majority of the country’s adults would have received the first jab.’
Almost 11million people have now had their first shot of the vaccine and, with the R rate now below 1, ministers are facing mounting calls to flesh out how they intend to lift restrictions.
In a video message posted to Twitter last night, Mr Johnson confirmed he would be setting out plans on February 22, but remained tight-lipped.
He said: ‘On February 22 I am going to be setting out a road map as far as we are able to giving everybody some clarity insofar as how we can hope to unlock, beginning as you know with schools’.
So far the only confirmed course of action is for schools to reopen on March 8 if infections are still coming down.
The PM has marked out continued education as a ‘national priority’ and has vowed to help children account for lost learning.
Department for Education officials are even weighing up whether it would be viable to extend the school day to squeeze in more teaching time.
Sources told the Telegraph one option being mulled is for schools to tack an extra lesson on to both the start and end of the current day.
An extension had been pushed by some Tory MPs – but have been met with a backlash from teaching unions.
Paul Whiteman, NAHT general secretary, said: ‘Research evidence shows that there are better methods to help pupils than lengthening the school day.
‘The Government must filter out loud calls for superficially attractive schemes and listen to the experts instead.’
The Imperial modelling, considered by SAGE on January 14, warned there is a danger of the NHS being swamped again if restrictions are eased too quickly
Pupils going back to classrooms will fire the starting gun on a tentative easing of restrictions, with outdoor mixing also reportedly earmarked for around March.
It is expected that outdoor sports such as golf and tennis will also be among the first things to be allowed after the planned return of schools from March 8.
Whitehall sources have previously suggested that all shops could be allowed to reopen from April, with hospitality venues such as pubs and restaurants waiting until at least May.
Senior Tory backbencher Sir Charles Walker said yesterday that lockdown has been an ‘exercise in terrifying people witless’ as he urged Mr Johnson to set out his exit plan.
Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the Tories’ backbench 1922 Committee, said the country was in a ‘far more optimistic place’, citing falling infection rates and the vaccine rollout.
He told Radio 4’s Today programme that the argument for England’s third national lockdown had been to stop the risk of the NHS becoming overwhelmed, but said the health service had ‘coped spectacularly well’.
‘Now that that threat is receding, we ought to be – and the Government says we are – looking to open up,’ he added.
But former health secretary Jeremy Hunt said ministers should take a cautious approach to lifting the lockdown so that new coronavirus cases can be driven down to 1,000 a day.
And Professor Graham Medley, chairman of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (Spi-M), said ministers should ‘make decisions dependent on the circumstances, rather than being driven by a calendar of wanting to do things’.
Pubs have had to throw away up to 87million pints of beer since the start of the pandemic, an industry body has claimed.
The British Beer and Pub Association said the waste was equal to £331million in sales, and warned of job losses without more Government support.
Number 10 adviser Samuel Kasumu (right) appeared to inadvertently reveal private targets to jab all over-18s by summer in his resignation statement to the Prime Minister (left) today