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All pupils to return from March 8 as Prime Minister announces four tests to ease England out of Covid-19 lockdown

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Pupils in all year groups in England will be allowed to return to classrooms from March 8, and outdoor after-school sports and activities will be allowed to resume, the government will announce today (February 22).

The Prime Minister will set out a “cautious” roadmap to easing England’s lockdown, announcing a four-part plan that will not be completed until the summer.

Boris Johnson will address the nation at 7pm on Monday February 21, 2021, to set out the roadmap for easing lockdown. Picture: PA
Boris Johnson will address the nation at 7pm on Monday February 21, 2021, to set out the roadmap for easing lockdown. Picture: PA

Socialising in parks and public spaces with one other person will be permitted in a fortnight, when the rules are relaxed to allow people to sit down for a drink or picnic.

There will be a further easing of restrictions on March 29, when the ‘rule of six’ will return as the school Easter holidays begin, allowing two households totalling more than six people to meet.

Outdoor sports facilities such as tennis and basketball courts are also set to reopen, and organised adult and children’s sport, including grassroots football, will return from March 29.

Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi said people would also be able to travel to see friends and family from another household from March 29, “as long as it’s outdoors, and it is two families, or the rule of six”.

Details of the next three stages will be set out in the roadmap, but Mr Zahawi indicated that, as with previous lockdowns, indoor activities will be among the last to resume.

He said: “At the moment, the focus is very much on the steady as she goes.

“Outdoor versus indoor, priority being children in schools, second priority is obviously allowing two people on March 8 to meet outside for a coffee to address some of the issues around loneliness, and of course mental health as well.

“And then the 29th is two families, or rule of six, coming together, and outdoor sporting activities as well.”

Daily confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the UK. Graphic: PA
Daily confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the UK. Graphic: PA

England’s pupils will return en masse on March 8, despite warnings from unions that it could be “reckless” not to stagger the resumption of face-to-face schooling.

Progress on the next steps out of lockdown will depend on meeting four tests.

The four tests

The government says the easing will proceed providing there is evidence that:

  • The Covid-19 vaccines continue to successfully deployed
  • The 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.
  • The government’s assessment of the risks is not fundamentally changed by new variants of concern.

As the four tests are currently being met, the first step is due to proceed from March 8, at which point the top four priority cohorts for vaccinations will have received a degree of immunity, three weeks after being offered their first dose.

However, Number 10 insisted that the “stay at home” message would remain in place despite the relaxation of some restrictions.

Covid-19 hospital admissions in England. Graphic: PA
Covid-19 hospital admissions in England. Graphic: PA

The changes will apply across England, rather than on a regional basis, with a five-week gap between stages expected to assess the impact on the spread of the virus and prepare businesses for the next move.

This suggest the next phase of the programme could begin as early as April 12, if the tests are met.

Speculation has centred on non-essential retail opening in that phase, with the possibility of pubs and restaurants being able to serve outdoors.

But activities such as cinemas and theatres are likely to face a longer wait, and, as with previous lockdowns, mixing in other people’s houses is likely to be later still.

Mr Johnson has stressed the need to relax restrictions in a “cautious” manner, saying that the government would make decisions based on the latest data at every step.

Ahead of his Commons address, Mr 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 wellbeing, and we will also be prioritising ways for people to reunite with loved ones safely.

“Our decisions will be made on the latest data at every step, and we will be cautious about this approach so that we do not undo the progress we have achieved so far and the sacrifices each and every one of you has made to keep yourself and others safe.”

But now that one in three adults in the UK have received their first dose of a coronavirus vaccine, Mr Johnson will face pressure from some Tory MPs to ease measures more quickly.

Conservative Mark Harper, leader of the Covid Recovery Group of lockdown-sceptic backbenchers, said on Sunday that all legal restrictions put in place in response to the pandemic should be lifted by the end of April.

However, scientists have urged caution, with leading epidemiologist Professor John Edmunds warning that any easing of the lockdown must be gradual to prevent a surge in hospital admissions and deaths.

Mr Johnson was chairing a virtual meeting of his Cabinet on Monday morning to discuss the plan, and will then announce the details to Parliament in the afternoon.

He is expected to host a Downing Street press conference at 7pm on Monday alongside key advisers.

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