SCHOOLS, socialising and some sports are set to return next month under the government’s plan to relax coronavirus lockdown restrictions in England.
It is understood that Prime Minister Boris Johnson will tell MPs that all pupils in all years can go back to the classroom from 8th March, with outdoor after-school sports and activities allowed to restart as well.
Socialising in parks and public spaces with one other person will also be permitted in a fortnight when the rules are relaxed to allow people to sit down for a drink or picnic.
A further easing of restrictions will take place on 29th March when the school Easter holidays begin – with larger groups allowed to gather in parks and gardens.
The ‘rule of six’ will return along with new measures allowing two households totalling more than six people to meet – giving greater flexibility for families and friends.
Outdoor sports facilities such as tennis and basketball courts are also set to reopen at the end of next month.
And organised adult and children’s sport – including grassroots football – can return from 29th March.
However, Number 10 insisted that the ‘stay at home’ message would remain in place despite the relaxation of some restrictions.
The measures form the first of four steps in the road map which the Prime Minister is set to outline in a statement to the Commons this afternoon (Monday).
He has stressed the need to relax restrictions in a “cautious” manner, saying that the government would make decisions based on the latest data at every step.
Ahead of his Commons address, Mr Johnson said: “Today I’ll be setting out a road map to bring us out of lockdown cautiously.
“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.
“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.
“We have therefore set four key tests which must be met before we can move through each step of the plan.”
Ministers will assess the success of the vaccine rollout, evidence of vaccine efficacy, new variants and infection rates before proceeding to the next step.
The tests are currently being met, Downing Street said, allowing the first relaxation to take place on 8th March.
But now that one in three adults in the UK have received their first dose of a coronavirus vaccine, Mr Johnson will face pressure from some Tory MPs to ease measures more quickly.
Conservative Mark Harper, leader of the Covid Recovery Group of lockdown-sceptic backbenchers, said on Sunday that all legal restrictions put in place in response to the pandemic should be lifted by the end of April.
However, scientists have urged caution, with leading epidemiologist Professor John Edmunds warning that any easing of the lockdown must be gradual to prevent a surge in hospital admissions and deaths.
And the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) said Mr Johnson should not to “bow” to political pressure and dilute public messaging in the road map.
Teaching union NASUWT, meanwhile, issued a fresh call for education staff to be prioritised for vaccines in the second phase of the rollout as schools reopen.
An announcement on the vaccine priority order for under-50s is expected to be made this week, Professor Adam Finn, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), said yesterday.
Restrictions will be relaxed step-by-step across the whole of England at the same time, Downing Street confirmed, due to the current uniform spread of the virus.
Number 10 said the road map would seek to balance the health needs with the social and economic impacts of lockdown.
For example, outdoor activities are set to be opened earlier than indoor ones, due to the reduced risk of spreading coronavirus outside.
MPs will be given the chance to vote on the regulations enabling the road map in the coming weeks.
Mr Johnson was to chair a virtual meeting of his Cabinet this morning to discuss the plan, and then unveil the details to Parliament in the afternoon.
He is expected to host a Downing Street press conference at 7pm today alongside key advisers.
The road map will also contain previously announced plans for care home residents to hold hands with a nominated loved one from 8th March.
And it will include the Government’s new target to offer vaccines to all adults by the end of July – as well as those aged over 50, and higher risk groups, by 15th April.
The road map will pave the way for the first easing of restrictions since England’s third national lockdown was announced on 4th January.