March 2, 2021

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Boris Johnson’s roadmap to ease lockdown and reopen schools and shops

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As Boris Johnson prepares to lay out his step by step strategy for phase two of the shutdown on Sunday, all indications point to a gradual easing of the restrictions, rather than a wholesale lifting of the lockdown.

On Wednesday, the Prime Minister confirmed that he hoped to “get going on some of these measures on Monday”.

The Government’s next actions will be based on predictions supplied by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), on how much the rate of infection or ‘reproduction’ (R) value may increase under different scenarios. The R value is currently thought to be 0.7 but must remain consistently below one to avoid a second peak. 

It is thought the measures will be eased one at a time, to allow the effects of each to be closely monitored until the experts are satisfied more changes can be made.  

As one cabinet minister put it: “The messaging will evolve from stay at home to be careful when you’re out. 

“There will be a cautious easing of some of the restrictions and an outline of the route back to something closer to normality, rather than everything suddenly going back to normal.”

So what might the ‘new normal’ look like?

Work

Office based employees who can continue to work from home will be advised to do so. Employers are expected to be instructed to implement staggered arrival and departure times for those who have critical roles in business or who cannot work from home – with workers advised to use the stairs instead of lifts.

Mr Johnson recommended that employees avoid public transport if possible and travel to work by bike. 

It will be recommended that offices are recalibrated to allow for social distancing – with screens and barriers erected to protect people working side-by-side, 

Meetings will be advised to take place remotely wherever possible and employers will be encouraged to provide hand sanitiser and properly ventilate buildings.

Many outdoor workers have continued in their roles throughout the crisis but the Government is said to be keen to encourage those back to work “who never should have stayed at home in the first place,” according to one cabinet minister. “In engineering, car manufacturing, textiles and construction, where social distancing can be implemented then workers will be encouraged back to the factory floor.”

Schools

Despite Downing Street confirming a Telegraph story that primary school pupils will start returning to class from June 1, Health Secretary Matt Hancock on Wednesday warned that schools may not reopen until September. 

Insisting it was too early to consider the move, he said he would make “no promises,” that children will return before the autumn.

It came after Professor Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer for England, last week said there was “no doubt” that reopening schools would increase the R value – despite pupils returning to class in European countries like Denmark and Switzerland. 

A source close to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said: “It wouldn’t be wise for everyone to go back on the same day. What we are looking at is a phased return.” It is thought Year 10 and lower sixth pupils could be the first to return to secondary schools as they have GCSEs and A-Levels next year. 

On Wednesday a poll found that the majority of parents would not send their children back to school as soon as they reopen.

The survey conducted by the online parenting forum Mumsnet found that 57 per cent of parents would prefer to keep their children at home initially even when they are allowed to return to the classroom. Just one in five parents (22 per cent) believe schools should reopen now.

At Wednesday night’s Downing Street press conference, Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick would only say phased reopening of schools will happen “when the time is right” 

Bubbles

Britons could be allowed to reunite with loved ones using “bubble” arrangements, which would see people choose a small number of friends and family to mix with.

The emphasis will be on meeting outdoors for the time being, with strict orders not to mix with anybody else.

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People could also be allowed to leave their homes more often and for longer periods of time.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who is involved in UK-wide decision-making through her seat on the Cobra committee, has already suggested there could be a change in the rules to allow “meeting up with a small defined group” of other people in a “sort of bubble arrangement”.

Although the Government’s strong preference is to “move as one” as the UK starts to relax the lockdown, Mr Jenrick warned they may make “smaller interventions” in regional hot spots if there is a surge in cases.

Face masks

Mr Johnson is expected to issue more guidance on face coverings after a survey by the rail and road watchdog, Transport Focus, found that more than half of commuters (51 per cent) would not be happy using trains and buses again unless the Government mandated the wearing of face masks.

In a poll of 2,000 passengers, carried out earlier this month, 83 per cent of passengers said they also wanted hand sanitiser made available on vehicles as well as train stations and bus stops, and 62 percent said they would not venture back onto public transport unless effective social-distancing measures are in place. 

Meanwhile, only 24 per cent of people said they would be happy to start travelling again as soon as lockdown restrictions are eased, with 40 percent saying they still expected to work from home.

It came after Mr Johnson last week said face coverings “will be useful, both for epidemiological reasons, but also for giving people confidence that they can go back to work”.

Earlier this week findings were submitted to Sage by a sub-group of the Royal Society claiming that face coverings could be at least half as effective as surgical masks and the public should be encouraged to wear them at work, on public transport and when shopping.

Testing

During Wednesday’s Prime Minister’s Questions, Mr Johnson said the Government’s “ambition” was to hit 200,000 tests “by the end of this month – and then go even higher”.

It came after the Government announced it had hit its target of 100,000 tests on Friday, but that number has since fallen back.

Mr Johnson said “capacity currently exceeds demand” and steps were being taken to address that.

NHSx’s ‘track and trace’ app, currently being piloted in the Isle of Wight, will be rolled out nationwide in the coming weeks. 

Entertainment venues

Pubs and clubs are expected to remain closed for the foreseeable future, although further advice is expected on the provision of takeaway services. 

Some cafes have already begun to reopen while implementing social distancing measures – while McDonalds has announced it will reopen 15 of its restaurants in the UK offering delivery services only from May 13.

It seems unlikely hotels will reopen while the emphasis remains on “essential’ travel.

Retail

Although there have been multiple reports about non essential shops like gardening centres re-opening, Mr Johnson is not expected to change the rules on other retail yet – although chains like B&Q have already reopened some stores.

Retailers that are currently trading have taken measures outside and inside stores, introducing plexiglass screens at tills and limiting numbers both in store and in socially-distanced warehousing operations.

The British Retail Consortium has submitted a report to Government recommending that if non-essential shops reopen, changing rooms should stay closed and in-store seating and services – such as advice, personal shopping or nail bars – should be limited. 

Places of worship 

Mr Jenrick said it was still too early to reopen religious services. 

“We are in conversation with faith leaders across the country to consider how, when the time is right, they will be able to recommence services in churches and mosques and synagogues across the country. But that moment is not now,” he said.

Over 70s

The Telegraph understands the advice for over 70s is going to “morph” amid claims it currently discriminates according to age. 

At the moment, all over 70s classed as “clinically vulnerable” regardless of their health (while 1.5 million people with pre-existing health conditions are regarded as “extremely clinically vulnerable” and have been told to shield for 12 weeks).

A cabinet minister said the advice was not expected to get stricter for over 70s following reports that pensioners were going to be told to adhere to stringent social distancing rules until a vaccine is found. 

Exercise 

Although Mr Johnson is expected to announce that people can do as much exercise as they like – overruling the current guidance of once a day – gyms and playgrounds are expected to remain closed. 

Tory MPs have been calling for temperature testing at gyms and leisure centres – however a senior government source told the Telegraph: “Where people are using the same equipment, and then you get into tricky points [..] 

“Playgrounds and gyms, and outdoor gyms will be the sort of things that will come in at a later point, because there’s an increased risk of infection.”

Instead the emphasis will be placed on easing restrictions outdoors following evidence showing there is less likelihood of transmission of the disease in the open air than indoors.

Police

The enforcement message will “flip” from telling people what they can do – to advising them what they can’t. A Home Office source revealed: “We will be flipping the messaging. We had been talking about this idea of telling people what they can do, but we want it to change to talking about what they can’t. Policing by consent is much easier when people know what they can’t do.”

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