Analysis

A Cautious And Irreversible Roadmap To Easing Lockdown

Chris Adams

The Prime Minister will be leaving the debate in the House of Commons feeling rightly satisfied with the response. He appears to have struck the balance between the need to give businesses certainty around the re-opening of the economy, while being careful not to re-open too fast and risk further lockdowns before the vaccine can be fully rolled out.

Presenting his plans to MPs this afternoon, Johnson was at pains to demonstrate that he had learnt from the experience of previous lockdowns. He was clear in his intention to ensure this lockdown should be “cautious and irreversible” and he went further than what had been trailed in the papers, laying out clear dates for much of the economy to re-open in mid-April, with further easing from mid-May and an end to legal restrictions by the end of June.

The fact he went into such detail is testament to the need to satisfy senior backbenchers such as former Chief Whip Mark Harper MP and his COVID Recovery Group of MPs, who have been pushing for even faster re-opening of the economy following the success of the vaccine programme. He addressed this head-on saying “the end really is in sight” encouraging his backbenchers to look with optimism towards an “immeasurably better” summer. Whether this is likely to be enough to satisfy some on the Tory backbenches remains to be seen – initial reactions indicate that perhaps not.

For some sectors the staged re-opening will depend on a series of reviews around continued social distancing (including working from home), international travel, COVID status certification for venues and the return of major events. The speed with which these reviews can be completed will have a significant impact on the extent to which the economy can re-open, and the likelihood of the PM’s promise of summer holidays coming true.

Labour, meanwhile, finds itself in something of a bind. The Labour leadership agrees with the Government on the importance of opening schools on 8th March and, despite doubling down on their call to vaccinate teachers, is finding very little to criticise anything around the vaccine rollout. Starmer also doesn’t want to be seen to be agreeing with Conservative backbench rebels who want to see a faster easing of lockdown, and so found himself simply urging the Prime Minister to remain cautious – a course of action he has already decided upon – and promising to support him to do just that. With the local and devolved elections on the horizon, Labour is fast running out of time to find areas of differentiation with the Conservatives on the core issue of the day.

The Government meanwhile can leave this announcement confident that the measures announced are likely to secure broad support from the public, who will be relieved that they are finally starting to glimpse the light at the end of the tunnel.

THE DETAIL: WHAT THE PM ANNOUNCED

The Government have now published their roadmap which can be viewed here. It will be measured against four tests:

  • The vaccine deployment programme continues successfully
  • Evidence shows vaccines are sufficiently effective in reducing hospitalisations and deaths in those vaccinated
  • Infection rates do not risk a surge in hospitalisations which would put unsustainable pressure on the NHS
  • Government’s assessment of the risks is not fundamentally changed by new variants

Having committed to analysing the data behind the impact of the changes to lockdown, Government has determined that the easing will happen at 5-week intervals between each stage, due to a 4-week delay in data. Each step will be confirmed by Government a week before the planned dates outlined below.

The four steps can be summarised as follows:

  • Step 1: 8th March – schools will go back and people can meet one other person in public spaces for outdoor recreation in addition to exercise. 29th March – the rule of 6 or two households can meet outdoors, including in private gardens and formally organised sport will return. Stay at home order rescinded, but people advised to continue working from home.
  • Step 2: 12th April – non-essential retail will reopen, including hairdressers. Pubs and restaurants can re-open outdoors but there will not be a return to a curfew or a requirement to have a substantial meal. Zoos, theme parks and drive in cinemas will reopen as will libraries and community centres.
  • Step 3: 17th May – Most restrictions on meeting outdoors will be lifted, subject to a limit of 30. Family and friends can meet indoors subject to the rule of 6 or meeting of two households, including in pubs and restaurants as well as cinemas and children’s play areas, hostels, hotels and B&Bs. Theatres and concert halls will reopen, as well as sports stadiums will reopen subject to capacity limits.
  • Step 4: 24th June – Government aims to remove all legal limits on social contact including on weddings and other life events. Night clubs re-open and large events including theatre performances can take place above the limits of step 3, potentially using testing. As part of this, the Government will extend provision of free test kits for workplaces until end of June.

The Government also committed to conducting 4 reviews:

  1. How long social distancing and wearing of facemasks should continue to be mandated. This will also include guidance on working from home and will be critical in assessing when Parliament can return as normal
  2. A review on international travel, reporting by 12th April so people can plan for the summer
  3. COVID status certification to enable venues to reopen safely
  4. The return of major events

Finally, the Prime Minister committed to continuing support packages for businesses for the duration of the pandemic, with full details to come in the Chancellor’s Budget next week.