LONDON • British Prime Minister Boris Johnson declared that the end of the coronavirus pandemic is in sight for England, as he set out his aim to ease lockdown rules in stages over the next four months.
Mr Johnson detailed a four-step plan that will reopen schools from March 8, outdoor hospitality from mid-April and sports stadiums by mid-May. From June 21, all remaining businesses, such as nightclubs, will resume operations and rules on social contact will be scrapped.
The Prime Minister warned that his blueprint for a return to normality depends on keeping the virus under control. Even under optimistic scenarios, government advisers expect 30,000 more deaths after the easing of lockdown. But if infection rates surge dramatically again, restrictions will have to stay, Mr Johnson said.
"This road map should be cautious but also irreversible," he told Members of Parliament in London on Monday. "The end really is in sight and a wretched year will give way to a spring and a summer that will be very different and incomparably better than the picture we see around us today."
Mr Johnson is already facing pressure to move faster after the economy suffered its deepest recession in more than 300 years. Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak will unveil more support for pandemic-hit businesses in his budget next week.
England has been under lockdown since early last month and, even under Mr Johnson's plan, government guidance asking people to work from home where possible will remain in place at least until June 21, when social distancing measures will be reviewed.
Each move will be taken uniformly across England, with the authorities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland making their own plans.
The government said there must be a five-week gap between the key stages in the plan to allow officials to evaluate the impact of relaxing the rules on the spread of the virus before moving on to the next step. Further easing will depend on the vaccination programme working, hospitals remaining safe from a surge in cases and new strains not threatening to increase the risks.
There will be a review of social distancing measures such as face coverings, and a task force will be set up to explore how to enable more international travel while managing the risk of new variants entering the country.
Mr Johnson also announced a review into whether proof of vaccines could be used to give people access to venues or workplaces domestically, having acknowledged that such documentation would likely be necessary for travel to certain countries.
"There may well be a role for certification. We just need to get it right," he said at a press conference on Monday. "There are clearly some quite complex issues, some ethical issues about discrimination and to what extent government can either compel or forbid use of such certification."
With cases and deaths now falling rapidly, an influential group of Conservative backbenchers wants to see all restrictions lifted by the end of April. Mr Johnson's predecessor Theresa May welcomed the return of students to schools, but urged him to move faster to open up the aviation industry. Former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith also urged Mr Johnson to reopen the hospitality sector more quickly.
All adults in the country are due to be offered a vaccine shot by the end of July, and everyone aged over 50 by mid-April. More than 17.7 million people have received a vaccine so far.
Still, Mr Johnson's top medical and scientific advisers used a televised media conference to warn the public that the fight against the virus will outlast the government's lockdown exit plan.
Chief scientific officer Patrick Vallance said it may be necessary to wear face masks until next winter, while chief medical officer Chris Whitty said the coronavirus will be a risk to vulnerable members of the population for the foreseeable future.
"We cannot persist indefinitely with restrictions that debilitate our economy, our physical and mental well-being, and the life-chances of our children," Mr Johnson said.
"We are setting out on what I hope and believe is a one-way road to freedom."