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WORLD | 22-02-2021 13:50

All over by summer? UK government eyes return to normal by end of June

British PM Boris Johnson outlines a "gradual and cautious" approach to lifting curbs in England, starting with the return of students to schools from March 8, and non-essential retail from April 12.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday set out a four-step plan to ease coronavirus restrictions, expressing a hope that life could get back to normal by the end of June.

In a statement to Parliament, the Tory leader outlined a "gradual and cautious" approach to lifting curbs in England, starting with the return of students to schools from March 8, and non-essential retail from April 12.

Some fans could be able to attend sporting fixtures from May 17, while all social distancing restrictions could be removed from June 21, all subject to change and depending on scientific data.

The announcement is the first big step towards restoring normal life, nearly a year after Johnson imposed the first of three stay-at-home orders that have devastated the country and its economy.

Johnson told MPs that with a mass vaccination programme across the country easing pressure on overstretched hospitals, "the end really is in sight."

"A wretched year will give way to a spring and summer that will be very different and incomparably better than the picture we see around us today," he added.

The Conservative prime minister, who was accused of acting too late and relaxing curbs too early last year, called the plan "cautious but irreversible" to ensure no more lockdowns.

Britain is one of the countries hardest-hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, with more than 120,000 deaths.

It was the first nation to begin a mass vaccination campaign in December, but surging case numbers forced a return to lockdown and shut schools in early January after an easing of curbs over Christmas.

More than 17 million people have now received at least a first vaccine dose – one-third of the UK's adult population.

Case numbers falling

Over the weekend, the government said it would seek to offer a dose to everyone aged over 50 by mid-April, and to every other adult by the end of July, accelerating the latter timetable from September previously.

Case numbers are falling again and early evidence suggests the vaccinations are reducing serious illness, after some intensive-care units were overrun last month and queues of ambulances formed outside hospitals, unable to transfer their patients.

Johnson said the planned relaxations would be uniform across England, after regionalised tiers were put in place last year, but stressed that further progress would hinge on factors such as any new Covid variants.

That, and proof that the National Health Service is not facing any more "unsustainable pressure," offer Johnson some flexibility against pressure from Conservative backbenchers who are pressing for a cast-iron timeline to normality by the summer.

Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi confirmed earlier on Monday that pupils would go back to schools en masse on March 8 rather than in a staggered return, insisting widespread testing would make it safe.  

"We are being deliberately careful and of course allowing teachers the notice to be able to prepare," he told BBC radio. "It's ambitious but it's also careful and it's data-driven."

However, teaching unions say all students returning on the same day is "reckless", but the March 8 target appears to be backed by the main opposition Labour party.

'Not through this yet'

Also from March 8, the government plans to allow elderly residents of care homes to receive indoor visits from one designated relative or friend, and limited social mixing by the public outdoors will be permitted.

The government laid out its plans in a 68-page document, which said the five-week intervals between the four stages were designed to allow for assessment of the relaxation measures.

Johnson stressed the lifting of curbs would be led by data, not dates. The four tests involve study of the progress of the vaccine rollout, pressure on hospitals, infection rates and the emergence of any new coronavirus variants.

The devolved governments of Scotland and Wales, which administer their own health policy, are letting some younger pupils return to school this week.

In Northern Ireland, the administration is resuming younger classes on March 8 but has extended its overall lockdown to April 1.

John Edmunds, an epidemiologist and government advisor from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told the BBC: "The vast majority of us are still not immune. Easing up too quickly will increase pressure, cases will increase again. We're not through this yet."

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by Joe Jackson, AFP

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