All children and students will return to face to face education in schools and college from 8 March, the prime minister announced last night.
Boris Johnson has said throughout lockdown that getting children back into school has been the top priority. By 8 March everyone in the top four vaccine priority cohorts will have received the first dose of their vaccine and developed the necessary protection from it.
A four-step roadmap to ease restrictions across England and provide a route back to a more normal way of life was also revealed by the prime minister.
However, Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said that the announcement demonstrated “that Boris Johnson has, despite all his words of caution, failed to learn the lessons of his previous mistakes”.
“Whilst cases of Covid infection are falling, along with hospitalisation rates, it remains the case, unfortunately, that cases are three times higher now than when schools re-opened last September. This fact, alone, should have induced caution rather than, in the words of Nadhim Zahawi an ‘ambitious’ school return which runs the risk of schools, once again, becoming, in the Prime Minister’s words on 4 January, ‘vector of transmission’ into the community. This risk is greatly elevated because of the new variants of Covid which are significantly more transmissive,” she added.
The roadmap outlines four steps for easing restrictions, however, before proceeding to the next step, the government will examine the data to assess the impact of previous steps.
This assessment will be based on four tests:
- The vaccine deployment programme continues successfully.
- Evidence shows 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 assessment of the risks is not fundamentally changed by new Variants of Concern.
There will be a minimum of five weeks between each step - four weeks for the data to reflect changes in restrictions, followed by seven days’ notice of the restrictions to be eased. The Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Adviser have made it clear that this will give adequate time to assess the impact of each step and reduce the risk of having to re-impose restrictions at a later date.
In the first stage from 8 March, the following changes will also be implemented:
- Wraparound childcare can resume where they enable parents to work, seek work, attend education, seek medical care or attend a support group.
- Care home residents will be allowed one Covid-tested regular visitor wearing PPE.
- People should still adhere to the Stay at Home requirement will remain, but can leave home for recreation outdoors such as a coffee or picnic with their household or support bubble, or with one person outside their household.
- Some university students on practical courses will be able to return to face to face learning.
As part of step one, from 29 March, the week in which most schools will break up for Easter, outdoor gatherings of either six people or two households will be allowed. Outdoor sports facilities will be allowed to reopen, and, at this point, the Stay at Home order will end, although many lockdown restrictions will remain.
People should continue to work from home where possible, and overseas travel remains banned, aside for a small number of reasons.
Step 2 will be introduced no earlier than 12 April and means the following:
- Non-essential retail, hairdressers and nail salons, and libraries and community centres, will reopen.
- Most outdoor attractions and settings such as zoos, and theme parks, will also reopen although wider social contact rules will apply in these settings.
- Indoor leisure facilities, such as gyms and swimming pools, will also reopen - but only for use by people on their own or with their household.
- Hospitality venues can serve people outdoors only.
- Self-contained accommodation can also reopen.
- Funerals can continue with up to 30 people, and 15 people can attend weddings.
Step 3 will come into play no earlier than 17 May:
- Outdoors, most social contact rules will be lifted but no more than 30 people can gather.
- Outdoor cinemas and theatres can reopen.
- Indoors, the rule of 6 or 2 households will apply - although this will be kept under review.
- Entertainment venues such as cinemas and soft play areas, the rest of the accommodation sector, and indoor adult group sports and exercise classes will also reopen.
- Larger performances and sporting events in indoor venues with a capacity of 1,000 people or half-full will also be allowed.
- In the largest outdoor seated venues where crowds can spread out, up to 10,000 people will be able to attend (or a quarter-full, whichever is lower).
- Up to 30 people will be able to attend weddings, receptions and wakes, as well as funerals.
Step 4 will come into play no earlier than 21 June and it will mean:
- Legal limits on social contact can hopefully be removed.
- Nightclubs can be re-opened and restrictions can be lifted regarding large events and performances.
- Decisions will be made on whether all limits can be removed on weddings and other life events.
The increased protection offered by the vaccines has enabled the government to slowly and cautiously begin to ease restrictions in all areas across England at the same time, guided at all stages by data, not dates.