When Boris Johnson stands at the despatch box on Monday afternoon to unveil his roadmap for ending the lockdown, those hoping for a big bang moment in ending restrictions will be left disappointed. Instead, the Prime Minister will announce a very gradual easing of the lockdown stretching to the summer – with Johnson reserving the right to make it even slower should the data go the wrong way. Having been stung by previous promises to avoid further lockdowns, the roadmap will be more cautious than members of the Conservative party's Covid Recovery Group would like.
The plan is to be signed off by ministers ahead of Johnson announcing it in the Chamber and addressing the nation on Monday evening. The first priority will be schools – with Johnson to announce the reopening of all schools on March 8. Outdoor recreation will also be among the first things to be eased – with the rules relaxed to allow individuals to meet up outside for leisure rather than simply exercise. By the end of March, the rule of six is expected to be brought back for outdoor socialising as well as two households being allowed to meet outdoors regardless of size.
Non-essential retail is likely to be allowed to be opened before hospitality. Ministers have spoken about using lateral flow tests to allow for the return of events. Meanwhile, outdoor activities will be allowed before indoor ones. In a sign that the government is pushing towards more personal responsibility on how to live with the virus, there will also be a push on 'normalising' safe Covid practices – so the idea of taking a lateral flow test before a night out as well as regular hand washing.
When it comes to the timescale, should deaths and hospitalisations plummet the Prime Minister is still keen to have a period of a few weeks between each easing to see the effect it has on the data. As a result, even if things appear to be going better than expected, it could be a long wait for a full reopening. There will be four tests for easing the lockdown at each stage: 1. Vaccine rollout going as planned 2. The vaccine is driving down deaths and hospitalisations in the way expected 3. The infection rate is one that doesn't risk the NHS being overwhelmed 4. New variants do not change the risk assessment.
Ministers today pledged to offer all adults a jab by the end of July. However, many Tory MPs – along with William Hague speaking this morning – have argued that rather than wait for everyone to be vaccinated, once the first nine priority groups have been vaccinated, most restrictions should go. Ministers are understood to be uneasy about a high number of cases even if the vulnerable are largely protected on the grounds that scientific advisers warn it increases the risk of new variants. When Johnson presents his plan to the House, he will need to convince Tory backbenchers that his strategy is the best route back to normality.