The prime minister announced his plan for England to be free of almost all restrictions by summer as he set out his four-step road map to lifting lockdown.
There will first be more than three months of cautious opening up with five weeks between the beginning of each new stage, which will go ahead if four tests of the pandemic and vaccination programme continue to be met.
Johnson also admitted that vaccines cannot be “100% effective” and so opening up would lead to “more cases, more hospitalisations and sadly more deaths”, but stressed there is “no credible route to a zero-Covid Britain” and so restrictions cannot go on “indefinitely”.
The first step in the detailed road map to lift lockdown includes the reopening of schools on March 8, and from March 29 the allowing of outdoor gatherings of six people or a larger group of two households, so family and friends can get together for Easter.
Step two will begin on April 12 at the earliest and will see the reopening of pubs and restaurants for outdoor service only, non-essential shops and hairdressers, public buildings like libraries, gyms and swimming pools, and other outdoor attractions.
Indoor mixing between households will remain banned during this period but families and friends will be able to meet in groups of six, or larger groups of two households, for a drink in a beer garden, an al fresco meal, or to visit the zoo, for example.
Controversial policies such as the requirement for pubs to serve substantial meals with drinks and the 10pm curfew for hospitality will be scrapped, although table service will still be required – no waiting at the bar.
“Staycations” will be back, with self-contained self-catered holiday accommodation reopening, while the limit on guest numbers at weddings and other “life events” will rise from six to 15.
Step three will begin on May 17 at the earliest and will see the scrapping of most outdoor social contact rules, although gatherings of more than 30 people will be illegal.
Crucially, this is the first time people will be able to visit friends or family in their homes, with indoor mixing of groups of six or two larger households permitted nationwide for the first time since the second lockdown.
A review due to report on April 12 will also consider the potential resumption of holidays abroad by May 17 at the earliest.
Restaurants and pubs will also be able to reopen indoors while complying with mixing rules, alongside entertainment such as museums, cinemas and children’s play areas, as well as hotels.
Finally, May 17 will also see the limited return of crowds to sporting events, gigs and theatres.
Indoors, crowds of 1,000 or “half-full”, whichever is lower, will be allowed.
Outdoors, capacity will be limited to 4,000 or half full, whichever is lower.
There is an exception for the largest outdoor seated venues such as football stadiums, which will welcome back either 10,000 fans or a quarter of the capacity, whichever is lower.
It raises the prospect of sizeable crowds at the final Premier League matches of the season on May 23, and at Euro 2020 fixtures at Wembley in June and July.
Weddings and other life events will also be able to expand to include 30 people.
Finally, on June 21, Johnson aims to scrap all legal limits on social contact and reopen the final closed sectors of the economy that have been shut since March 2020 such as nightclubs.
But social distancing, mask wearing and working from home could remain in place after this point, with a review due to report by June 21.
In a significant U-turn, the government will also review whether to introduce vaccine passports domestically from summer, having previously described the idea as discriminatory.
The review of Covid status certification will consider the moral and ethical questions as well as whether it could help reopen the economy sooner.
Johnson also pledged that the government would “not pull the rug out” from under businesses and workers while restrictions continue and would “continue to do whatever it takes” to support people, with chancellor Rishi Sunak due to reveal more details at next week’s Budget.
The government will also publish a plan to deal with new Covid variants of concern next month, including the possibility of local or regional lockdowns to clamp down on mutant strains that risk escaping immunity reached through vaccinations.
In the Commons, Johnson said: “I know there will be many people who will be worried that we are being too ambitious and that it is arrogant to impose any kind of plan on a virus and I agree that we must always be humble in the face of nature and we must be cautious.
“But I really also believe that the vaccination programme has dramatically changed the odds in our favour and it is on that basis that we can now proceed.
“Of course, there will be others who will believe that we could go faster on the basis of that vaccination programme, and I understand their feelings and I sympathise very much with the exhaustion and the stress that people are experiencing and that businesses are experiencing after so long in lockdown.
“But to them and to them all I say – today 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.”
Labour leader Keir Starmer said that “this has to be the last lockdown” and urged Johnson to resist pressure from his lockdown-sceptic backbenchers to lift restrictions more quickly to gain the support of the opposition in the Commons vote on the plan, which will take place before Easter.
He told the Commons: “I know the prime minister will come under pressure from those on his own benches to go faster and to throw caution to the wind.
“Last week, it was reported that around 60 of his own members of Parliament called for the end of all restrictions by the end of April.
“I’m sure there are going to be similar calls this afternoon. I hope the prime minister takes the opportunity to face this down because if this road map is to work he needs to listen to the chief scientific officer and the chief medical officer, not [Conservative MP Steve Baker] or [Conservative MP Mark Harper].
“If the prime minister does, he will have our support and will secure a majority in the House. If he does not, we will waste all the sacrifices of the last 12 months.”
Editor’s note: This article originally said museums will reopen in step two from April 12. It has now been corrected to make clear museums will not reopen until step three on May 17 at the earliest, after the government provided updated information.