U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson will announce that all schools in England will reopen from March 8 as he outlines how the national coronavirus lockdown will be lifted over the coming months.
Along with the reopening of schools to all pupils, people will be allowed to meet one-on-one to sit down for a coffee or picnic outdoors, and after-school activities outside can restart from the same date, according to a person familiar with the plans.
In a statement to Parliament on Monday, Johnson is also expected to allow more social contact from March 29, when outdoor gatherings of either six people or two households can take place, and outdoor sports such as tennis and football can resume.
The reopening of schools will be welcomed by parents who’ve been juggling their jobs with home schooling their children since England’s third national lockdown began in early January.
With the economy suffering its deepest recession in more than 300 years and cases and deaths falling rapidly, Johnson is facing growing calls — including from his own Conservative backbenchers — to lift lockdown curbs.
That pressure is mounting amid a significant acceleration of the United Kingdom’s vaccination program, with all adults to be offered a shot by the end of July and everyone over 50 by mid-April. One in three adults have had a vaccine as of Sunday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said.
Johnson was expected to discuss the reopening plan with his cabinet of senior ministers Monday morning before giving a statement to the House of Commons in the afternoon and hosting a televised news conference in the evening.
In an emailed statement released Sunday night, Johnson said: “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 well-being, and we will also be prioritizing ways for people to reunite with loved ones safely.”
He said the government would be “cautious” in its approach so it does not “undo the progress we have achieved so far.” Reopening schools and allowing more social contact outside will form the first step of the government’s four-step process to lift national restrictions.
There will be a gap of several weeks between each of these steps to analyze the impact on caseloads and hospitalizations. Restrictions will be eased uniformly across England, and there will be four tests that must be met before moving onto each step. They are:
- That the vaccine program continues successfully
- That vaccines are sufficiently effective in reducing hospitalizations and deaths among those who have had the shot
- That infection rates do not risk a surge in hospitalizations that would put “unsustainable pressure” on the National Health Service
- That new variants do not fundamentally change the government’s assessment of the risks
These four tests are being met, the prime minister’s office said, so the first step will proceed beginning March 8. This is when the top four priority groups for vaccination will have received a “degree of immunity.”
Outdoor activities will be opened earlier than indoor ones because they have lower risk of spreading the disease, according to Johnson’s office.
Coronavirus cases surged to record levels in Britain this year as an easing of social distancing during the holiday period last year coincided with the spread of the highly infectious variant identified in the United Kingdom. The latest lockdown, coupled with the vaccine program, has reversed that trend. More than 17.5 million people have received their first dose of the vaccine.
Health authorities reported 9,834 new cases Sunday, down from the peak week in January, when cases averaged almost 60,000 a day. Hancock told the BBC that cases of the variants identified in South African and Brazil were falling in the United Kingdom, thanks to “enhanced contact tracing and the measures at the border.”
Mark Harper, who chairs the lockdown-skeptic backbench group of Conservative MPs, said he wanted to see all restrictions lifted by the end of April. “We think at that point people should be able to get on with their lives,” he told the BBC on Sunday.
But John Edmunds, an epidemiologist who sits on the government’s advisory scientific committee, raised warnings over the mass reopening of schools. There will be “major disruption in schools until we have vaccinated our children,” he told the BBC.
The United Kingdom’s opposition Labour Party called on ministers to extend eligibility for the £500 self-isolation payment to anyone without access to workplace sick pay. It said this would help more people stay at home and prevent a fourth national lockdown.