U.K.’s Johnson Opts for Slow End to Lockdown as Bars Stay Closed

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson will outline his plan for lifting the coronavirus lockdown in England on Monday, prioritizing the return of schools and outdoor activities over reopening stores, bars and restaurants.

In his statement to Parliament, Johnson will confirm that English schools will reopen to all pupils from March 8 and people will be allowed to meet one-on-one and sit together outdoors.

From March 29, gatherings of either six people or two households can take place outdoors, including in private gardens, and sports such as tennis and soccer can resume.

Johnson will urge caution over the opening of non-essential shops, hair salons and hospitality venues, saying there must be a gap between relaxing restrictions for each sector to examine caseloads and hospitalizations. Already though, he’s facing pressure to move faster, after the economy endured its worst recession in more than 300 years.

Chris Soley, chief executive of Camerons Brewery, said on Twitter the U.K. “should be accelerating back to an unrestricted open economy as soon as possible” and many pubs “were on the verge of being lost forever.” Camerons is the largest independent brewery in the north-east of England.

England has been in its third national lockdown since early January, with schools closed and shops, pubs and restaurants shuttered. With cases and deaths now falling rapidly, an influential group of Conservative backbenchers wants to see all restrictions lifted by the end of April.

That pressure is mounting amid falling case numbers and a significant acceleration of the U.K.’s vaccination program, with all adults to be offered a shot by the end of July and everyone over 50 by mid-April.

One in three adults -- more than 17.5 million people -- have had a vaccine as of Sunday. Health authorities reported 9,834 new cases on Sunday, down from the peak week in January when cases averaged almost 60,000 a day.

The British Beauty Council, which represents hair and beauty salons, said reopening should not “be delayed any longer than is strictly necessary” and warned that without more government support, one in five salons would be forced to close.

High Priority

Johnson discussed the reopening plan with his cabinet of senior ministers Monday morning, before giving a statement to the House of Commons in the afternoon and hosting a televised press conference in the evening.

He said on Twitter the government would be “cautious” in its approach “so that we do not undo the progress we have achieved so far.” Reopening schools and allowing more social contact outside will form the first step of the government’s four-step process to lift national restrictions.

Johnson will confirm that restrictions will be eased uniformly across England, and there will be four tests that must be met before moving onto each step. These are:

  • That the vaccine program continues successfully
  • Vaccines are sufficiently effective in reducing hospitalizations and deaths among those who have had the shot
  • Infection rates don’t risk a surge in hospitalizations that would put “unsustainable pressure” on the National Health Service
  • New variants don’t fundamentally change the government’s assessment of the risks

Budget Ahead

The statement will influence how quickly billions of pounds of Treasury support will be unwound, according to two people familiar with the matter. Key government measures including the furlough program that pays workers as much as 80% of their wages, a business rates holiday and reduced sales tax for hospitality and tourism are all due to end in March and April.

In next week’s budget, Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak will extend supports, according to the people, who spoke anonymously about unannounced plans. The easing of those measures will broadly track Johnson’s road map for unlocking, while recognizing that business won’t immediately return to normal levels even when shops and pubs are allowed to reopen.

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