Boris Johnson will set out his roadmap for easing restrictions in England on Monday, including the reopening of schools, care homes, retail and, eventually, hospitality. Here are some of the key questions he must resolve.
How much do case rates count?
The British Medical Association has said it is only safe to significantly ease restrictions when infections dip below 1,000 a day, a figure far lower than the current seven-day average of 11,500. The chair of the health select committee, Jeremy Hunt, has also urged a focus on case rates.
In recent days Boris Johnson has appeared onboard with this strategy, talking about case rates needing to be “really very low”. But some Tory MPs believe this is shifting the goalposts when the criteria initially set out by the health secretary to lift restrictions focused on the progress of the vaccine programme, the containment of new variants, and hospitalisations and deaths.
What measures are needed to contain new variants – and will Tory MPs agree?
Variants are said to be the biggest concern of Matt Hancock and the chief medical officer for England, Prof Chris Whitty. The infectiousness of the Kent variant has meant a higher number of people need to be vaccinated before herd immunity is reached.
Tough border measures are intended to contain the import of variants – so will we see Johnson add countries to the “red list” requiring hotel quarantine as part of the roadmap? New variants also emerge when case rates are high, which is another argument for keeping restrictions tight for now. But Tory MPs such as Mark Harper have said it is unfair to keep the country locked down because of fears of yet-unknown variants.
How will the data on schools reopening be reviewed?
One area where Johnson appears to have significantly departed from the epidemiological consensus is his plan to bring all schoolchildren back to class from 8 March, rather than a staggered return.
Will the prime minister announce that all reopenings are provisional on monitoring the effect of schoolchildren returning on the R number? Could the Easter holidays on 2 April act as an effective “circuit breaker” if school returns push up infections? All this could be considered in the roadmap.
When can people play team sports again?
A number of scientists have said in recent days that more outdoor socialising is relatively risk-free. Prof Mark Woolhouse, of the University of Edinburgh, whose work feeds into the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) sub-group Spi-M, said the data showed there was no need for the government to be “ultra-cautious” and that outdoor sports should be allowed.
Some MPs and scientists would like to see the prime minister better emphasise the airborne nature of the virus and the relative safety of meeting outdoors compared with household mixing indoors.
At the moment, scientific advisers are reported to be reluctant to allow more outdoor mixing because of a perceived impact on compliance – it could lead people to head indoors together as evening approaches. Will Johnson effectively communicate the different risks?
How long will the public be told to work from home where they can?
Johnson is not expected to launch any push back to the office, unlike what was seen over the summer. Ultimately, many firms have told workers not to return until September at the earliest, and others not until next year. Will the prime minister steer any course – or leave this entirely up to discretion?
How long will social distancing and mask-wearing be enforced for?
It is now generally accepted that mass testing, mask-wearing and social distancing are likely to be in place until at least the end of the year. These measures will affect hospitality businesses and the numbers that can be served in restaurants and pubs. Johnson will need to give some indication about when he expects those places can return to full capacity.
When can people stay over at their parents’ house?
Johnson has previously said indoor mixing is one of the riskiest situations and families are likely to be permitted to meet outside much sooner. But the question of overnight stays is likely to be crucial to families who live in different areas of the country – for example, grandparents who may not have seen their grandchildren in months. With much of the older generation now vaccinated, it will be an area where Johnson will be under pressure to give an aspirational date for reunions.
When can people go on holiday?
The prime minister may lay out a timetable for breaks within the UK for families in self-catering accommodation, which could be relatively soon, though there is concern at how the virus could spread to holiday hotspots. Restrictions are likely to be lifted to allow holidays within the UK over the summer – though Johnson may be reluctant to commit to how many households can mix during those breaks.
Foreign travel looks very uncertain, even with talk of “vaccine corridors” with countries willing to take vaccinated Britons, such as Greece.