England’s national lockdown will remain in place until at least March 8, with plans for a “gradual and phased” route out due to be revealed next month.
Boris Johnson announced that schools will not reopen immediately after February half-term, and that new border restrictions will be put in place for travellers arriving in the UK from certain countries.
Here is a look at some of the questions around what an eventual lifting of restrictions might look like.
– What is likely to reopen first?
Schools. Mr Johnson said he hopes classrooms can begin to reopen from March 8, if the target of vaccinating the four most vulnerable groups with a first dose by mid-February is achieved.
The three-week gap before reopening schools is to allow those who have been vaccinated to develop immunity.
Emphasising the importance of young people getting back to their desks as soon as possible, the Prime Minister told the Commons: “The first sign of normality beginning to return should be pupils going back to their classrooms.”
He acknowledged “how frustrating” the lengthy spell of closure would be for students, parents and teachers.
Children eligible for food parcels or vouchers will receive these until they return to school, he said, and a “programme of catch-up” will be put in place for pupils, as well as summer schools.
Hinting that primary schools might reopen first, vaccine deployment minister Nadhim Zahawi this week said studies about infection rates at primary schools had been “encouraging”.
Infection rates are much lower among primary school children, he said, adding that rates are around five times higher in secondary schools.
– What about hospitality?
There was little detail in Mr Johnson’s statement on other sectors reopening.
He said if schools reopen on March 8 the “economic and social restrictions” could be eased “then or thereafter”, but said that would be “as and when the data permits”.
Those within the sector will be hoping for detail within the plan that Mr Johnson has committed to publishing in the week of February 22 – the contents of which he said will “depend on the continued success of our vaccination programme, the capacity of the NHS, and on deaths falling at the pace we would expect as more people are inoculated”.
He told MPs he hopes to be able to “populate the diary” with estimated dates for the loosening of specific restrictions in the “next few weeks”.
Earlier this month, some researchers suggested bars and restaurants should stay shut until May.
Dr Marc Baguelin, from Imperial College London, who sits on the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (Spi-M) which advises the Government, said the opening of the hospitality sector before then would lead to another “bump” in transmission.
The British Beer and Pub Association has called for the Government to lay out a “clear road map” for the sector, warning that the prospect of places being forced to shut until May requires an extension of financial support “for them to survive, and to brewers whose businesses also face jeopardy”.
– And how does it look for travel?
In a toughening up of restrictions, Mr Johnson announced that arrivals into the UK from countries already subject to a travel ban due to concerns over mutant strains of coronavirus – including South Africa, Portugal and South American nations – will be quarantined in hotels or other Government-provided accommodation for 10 days.
Mr Johnson said: “In order to reduce the risk posed by UK nationals and residents returning home from these countries, I can announce that we will require all such arrivals who cannot be refused entry to isolate in Government-provided accommodation, such as hotels, for 10 days without exception.
“They will be met at the airport and transported directly into quarantine. The Department of Health and Social Care is working to establish these facilities as quickly as possible.”
Airline bosses have demanded that the Government provides an “urgent road map for the reopening of air travel”.
Linda Bauld, professor of public health at the University of Edinburgh, said quarantine hotels are “absolutely essential” and suggested the lack of quarantine measures earlier in the pandemic had been “a major factor” in contributing to the current situation.
Home Secretary Priti Patel said there would be a “stepping up” of enforcement rules so that people wishing to travel will have to “first make a declaration as to why they need to travel” which will then be “checked by carriers prior to departure”.
Ministers have warned in recent days that it is “too early” to speculate around future holiday plans, but Health Secretary Matt Hancock has previously said: “I think we’re going to have a great British summer.”
– What have the some of the top medics and scientists said about easing restrictions?
England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty has warned even a “very small change” while cases are high could cause a rapid resurgence, while chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance has warned against “getting too hooked” on specific dates for easing measures.
Experts from Edinburgh University said releasing all measures at the end of April – once all those in the first phase of the vaccination programme covering over-50s, those in high-risk groups and frontline health and social workers are expected to have been offered a jab – could still lead to a huge surge in cases.
Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the university said a “gradual relaxing” would be “much more likely to keep the pressure off the NHS than any wholesale relaxation”.
Dr Mike Tildesley, another member of Spi-M, has cautioned that we need to be “extremely careful” around easing restrictions, recalling early summer last year when he said “we very much flipped from everyone needs to stay at home to ‘let’s go and all go to the pub and eat out to help out’ – and we got this resurgence over the summer”.