British prime minister Boris Johnson has said he is “optimistic” about the prospect of lifting the current national lockdown to contain the coronavirus pandemic while also pleading with the public to remain “patient”.
Mr Johnson is due to unveil a “roadmap to recovery” on 22 February, laying out a timeline for the easing of the social restrictions his government introduced in early January to quell the spread of Covid-19, which has claimed 117,000 lives in the UK since March 2020 and worsened when the country was hit by a brutal second wave of infections towards the end of the year.
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Speaking at a Downing Street press briefing on Monday, the prime minister said: “I hope there isn’t that much longer to go now... I want this lockdown to be the last.
“We’ve got to be very prudent. What we want to see is progress that is cautious but irreversible and I think that’s what the public and people up and down the country will want to see.”
Mr Johnson has been placed under considerable pressure from within his own party after the Covid Recovery Group led by MPs Steve Baker and Mark Harper issued a letter signed by 63 backbenchers hailing the “tremendous pace” of the UK’s vaccine rollout – with 15m jabs already administered – and calling for the swift easing of restrictions.
While Mr Johnson’s Cabinet has shrugged off demands that it make “arbitrary commitments” and reserves the right to revise its roadmap in accordance with the latest data until the last minute, here’s a look at how life in Britain could look after the lockdown is eventually lifted.
Children are expected to be allowed back to school from 8 March, as things stand, a crucial first step in kickstarting the economy in that it relieves the pressure on parents currently juggling the responsibilities of childcare and overseeing online learning with their own working lives, a source of stress and anxiety to many.
Whether both primary and secondary schools will be permitted to reopen at the same time is reportedly still being debated within Whitehall, with Mr Johnson saying on Saturday during a visit to a vaccination centre in Teesside that he “very much hopes” that will be possible.
The prime minister has also declined to rule out extending the school year into the summer by an extra fortnight to allow for extra catch-up classes.
Such a step could result in the autumn half-term and Christmas breaks being extended by a week each to compensate pupils.
When the school routine eventually does return to something resembling normality, we can expect the use of masks and hand sanitiser to continue, at least in the medium term, and perhaps a greater degree of teaching by Zoom, given that the pandemic has proven the possibilities offered by remote communication, even if it is ultimately an inferior alternative to in-person engagement.
Mr Johnson is also being tipped to announce that people will be allowed to expand their current household social bubbles from 8 March to meet with one additional friend in open areas, perhaps for a coffee in the park or a picnic, according to reports on current thinking within the government.
People will still not be permitted to meet for larger gatherings or enter each others’ houses, which will presumably be the next stage in the easing of lockdown further into the spring.
Again, we can expect masks, two-metre distancing and hand sanitiser to be with us for some time, as the vaccine rollout continues over the coming months to take in the less “at risk” groups.
We still remain a long way from the prospect of large crowds attending live events, with music festivals like Glastonbury and major sporting events like the European Championships or the Tokyo Olympic Games seemingly not viable until the majority of spectators have been vaccinated, although testing or vaccine certificates at the turnstiles could provide a way forward.
The return of audiences to stadia and arenas will, like the easing of restrictions more generally, have to be a gradual and incremental process, no matter how frustrating that might prove for many.
Shops, pubs and restaurants
For non-essential businesses in the retail and hospitality sectors, Mr Johnson has said his roadmap will offer only the “earliest possible” dates for mass reopening and those could be subject to change should the infection rate pick up again.
That stance puts him at odds with the Covid Recovery Group, which is demanding that pubs and restaurants reopen for business by Easter for the sake of the economic recovery, with Wetherspoons boss Tim Martin making the same appeal to safeguard bartending and waiting jobs.
It’s clear that the pandemic has already had a devastating impact on the British high street, accelerating our adoption of online shopping with physical retail temporarily suspended, which could well translate into empty shop fronts, at least in the short term.
However, town centres could soon be revitalised by new ventures and deserted premises reinvented as premium living spaces, which could prove popular given their central location.
The prospect of overseas holidays returning still looks a long way off too, unfortunately, with transport secretary Grant Shapps warning recently that it is still “too early” to book trips with so much still hanging in the balance.
He also said that while the UK’s vaccine rollout has so far been a huge success, Europe and the United States have been lagging behind.
“We’ll need to wait for other countries to catch up as well in order to be able to do that wider international unlock, because we can only control the situation here,” Mr Shapps cautioned.
“Vaccine passports” proving that a traveller has been inoculated could make some departures possible while mandatory isolation in “quarantine hotels” near international airports upon return from certain “red-listed” countries appears likely to be the future for the medium term.
That doesn’t mean that domestic travel cannot return much sooner, although coastal cottages, beachside hotels and B&Bs near natural beauty spots are expected to be inundated with booking inquiries as soon as the weather improves, with exasperated families desperate to get out and about in search of a much-needed change of scene.