U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday was setting out a road map for lifting one of Europe’s strictest national lockdowns — but the millions of Britons eager for a haircut or an evening out still face a long wait.
Johnson is expected to announce a plan to ease coronavirus restrictions in increments, starting by reopening schools in England on March 8. People will be allowed to meet one friend or relative for a chat or picnic outdoors beginning the same day.
Three weeks later, people will be able to meet outdoors in groups of up to six and amateur outdoor sports can resume. But restaurants, pubs, gyms and hairdressers are likely to remain closed until at least April.
The measures being announced apply to England. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have slightly different lockdowns in place, with some children returning to class in Scotland and Wales on Monday.
Britain has had Europe’s deadliest coronavirus outbreak, with more than 120,000 deaths.
Faced with a dominant virus variant that scientists say is both more transmissible and more deadly than the original virus, the U.K. has spent much of the winter under a tight lockdown. Bars, restaurants, gyms, schools, hair salons and nonessential shops are closed, people are urged not to travel out of their local area and foreign holidays are illegal.
Hopes for a return to normality rest largely on Britain’s fast-moving inoculation program that has given more than 17.5 million people, a third of the country’s adult population, the first of two doses of vaccine. The aim is to give every adult a shot of vaccine by July 31, and to protect the over 50s and the medically vulnerable by getting them a first vaccine jab by April 15.
But the government cautions that the return of the country’s social and economic life will be slow. Johnson’s Conservative government was accused of reopening the country too quickly after the first lockdown in the spring and of rejecting scientific advice before a short “circuit-breaker” lockdown in the fall.
It does not want to make the same mistakes again, although Johnson is under pressure from some Conservative lawmakers and business owners, who argue that restrictions should be lifted quickly to revive an economy that has been hammered by three lockdowns in the last year.
The Conservative government — in normal times an opponent of lavish public spending — spent 280 billion pounds ($393 billion) in 2020 to deal with the pandemic, including billions paying the salaries of almost 10 million furloughed workers.
Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi said the government’s plan for lifting restrictions was “steady as she goes.”
“Outdoor versus indoor, priority being children in schools,” he said. “Second priority is obviously allowing two people on March 8 to meet outside for a coffee to address some of the issues around loneliness.”
The government says further easing will depend on vaccines proving effective at lowering hospitalization and deaths, infection rates remaining low and no new virus variants emerging that throw the plans into disarray.
Authorities are eagerly awaiting data on the impact of vaccination on infections, hospitalizations and deaths.
A Scottish study released Monday found that the vaccination program had led to a sharp drop in hospitalizations. Scientists from the University of Edinburgh, the University of Strathclyde and Public Health Scotland found that in the fourth week after an initial dose, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine reduced hospital admissions by as much as 85% and the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine shot cut admissions by up to 94%.
Scientists said the results were encouraging, but cautioned that the study did not assess whether people who have been vaccinated can still pass the virus on to others.