Hopes have been raised that the UK could move a step closer to pre-pandemic normality if the one-metre plus rule for social distancing is relaxed next month.
The government has been targeting June 21 as the earliest date on which the vast majority of coronavirus restrictions can be lifted as part of its four-step “roadmap” out of lockdown.
With around 50 million doses of a vaccine in people’s arms, the UK’s successful inoculation programme appears to be influencing the government’s thinking on how far it can go with re-opening.
While post-weekend reporting of Covid cases tends to be lower than the average, official figures on Monday showed the UK has recorded just one death in the latest 24-hour period.
What could happen?
The Times reported social distancing rules will be lifted to allow pubs, restaurants and theatres to open to full capacity for the first time in more than a year.
One-way systems, screens and mask-wearing while moving around might remain for hospitality venues but customer numbers will no longer be limited, the newspaper said.
Audiences in theatres and cinemas will have to wear face coverings during performances, while there will be strict guidance on ventilation and staggered entry, The Times reported.
A government insider told The Times:
“The evidence we’ve got so far from the pilots is very positive and the general background on data is hugely encouraging in terms of numbers, falling deaths and hospitalisations.
“The pilots have shown us that mitigations have worked sufficiently to allow us to remove social distancing at least in the settings that we really need to in order to get them in a viable position again.
“The kind of thing we’re looking at is keeping in place mask wearing, extra ventilation, staggered entry — all of that has been shown to have worked so far.”
What has the government said?
Responding to the report, Boris Johnson said there was a “good chance” the one-metre plus rule for social distancing can be ditched next month.
The final decision on whether the change can be brought in from June 21 will depend on the data, the prime minister added.
Johnson said he feels like the next stage of reopening on May 17 – which covers indoor hospitality, entertainment and possibly foreign travel – “is going to be good”.
Speaking during a campaign visit to Hartlepool, Johnson told reporters: “As things stand, and the way things are going, with the vaccine rollout going the way that it is – we have done 50 million jabs as I speak to you today, quarter of the adult population, one in four have had two jabs.
“You are seeing the results of that really starting to show up in the epidemiology.
“I think that we will be able to go ahead, feels like May 17 is going to be good.
“But it also looks to me as though June 21 we’ll be able to say social distancing as we currently have to do it, the one-metre plus, I think we have got a good chance of being able to dispense with the one-metre plus from June 21.
“That is still dependent on the data, we can’t say it categorically yet, we have got to look at the epidemiology as we progress, we have got to look at where we get to with the disease. But that’s what it feels like to me right now.”
A Cabinet Office spokesman pointed back to the wording of the road map out of lockdown, which states that the government “will complete a review of social distancing measures and other long-term measures that have been put in place to limit transmission”.
The review’s findings “will help inform decisions on the timing and circumstances under which rules on one-metre-plus, face masks and other measures may be lifted”.
What does the hospitality industry say?
One industry chief has said a return to unrestricted trading for hospitality from June 21 is “critical” and will mean firms can “come off life support”.
Kate Nicholls, chief executive of trade body UKHospitality, said: “These reports are very welcome if true.
“However, we must wait to see the full detail of plans as any restrictions in venues will continue to impact revenue and business viability.
“A return to unrestricted trading on June 21 is critical and will mean hospitality businesses (can) come off life support and be viable for the first time in almost 16 months.
“We urge the government to confirm reopening dates and these plans at the earliest opportunity, which will boost confidence and allow companies to step up planning and bring staff back.”
A spokesman for the UK Cinema Association indicated that the organisation hopes face coverings will not be a continued requirement.
He said: “We strongly believe that our exemplary record on safety – with not a single case of Covid traced back to a UK venue – and our ability to manage the movement of cinema-goers in modern, highly ventilated indoor environments offer ample evidence that any relaxation from June 21 can be undertaken safely without the need for further ongoing restrictions, including any requirement for face coverings.”
Do scientists agree?
Last month, government scientific advisers said the public should be able to remove face masks over the summer as vaccines do the heavy lifting in controlling Covid-19 – but they cautioned that masks and possibly other measures may be needed next autumn and winter if cases surge.
But there is a fierce debate within the scientific community.
In an open letter, one group of scientists said last month “a good society cannot be created by obsessive focus on a single cause of ill-health” and that Covid-19 “no longer requires exceptional measures of control in everyday life”.
The 22 signatories – who include Professor Carl Heneghan, director of the Centre for Evidence Based Medicine at University of Oxford and Professor Karol Sikora from the medicine school at the University of Buckingham – say mandatory face coverings, physical distancing and mass community testing should end no later than June 21.
The letter states: “It is more than time for citizens to take back control of their own lives.”
But others were less optimistic.
Professor Stephen Reicher, from the University of St Andrews and a member of the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours, which advises ministers, said calls from scientists and academics to end coronavirus restrictions are “wrong” and “remarkably insular”.
He said: “We have heard from these people before, arguing that Covid isn’t a risk and that restrictions should be lifted.
“They were wrong then and they are wrong now.”
Prof Reicher said the irony of saying “it’s all over” makes such measures less likely, makes increased infections more likely and therefore makes lockdown restrictions “a real possibility”.
What other measures have been relaxed?
And the last sign of progress being made, the government announced the limit on the number of mourners who can attend funerals is to be lifted in England.
The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said the legal restriction of a maximum of 30 mourners will be removed as part of the next stage of lockdown easing, expected on May 17.
The capacity will be determined by how many people venues, such as places of worship or funeral homes, can safely accommodate while maintaining social distancing, the department added.
Meanwhile, thousands of revellers without face coverings danced shoulder to shoulder to live music for the first time in more than a year at a pilot music festival.
Around 5,000 people packed into Sefton Park in Liverpool on Sunday for the outdoor gig which included performances from Blossoms, The Lathums and Liverpool singer-songwriter Zuzu.
Pictures and videos showed people packed together, arms in the air, dancing to the music at the event which has been hailed as a milestone towards getting live events running again.
Everyone had to produce negative coronavirus tests to enter the event but did not have to wear face coverings or follow social distancing rules.
It is hoped that test events like this will pave the way for festivals and venues across the country to reopen for mass gatherings again.
What about foreign holidays?
The ban on foreign holidays is expected to be lifted for people in England from May 17 as part of the next easing of coronavirus restrictions.
But Johnson cautioned that while there will be “some openings up” from that date, the approach must be “sensible” to avoid an “influx of disease” when international travel resumes.
Johnson’s cautious tone came as some MPs called for restrictions on foreign holidays to be maintained to protect the country from Covid-19 variants, and Labour leader Keir Starmer urged a “careful” approach.
Johnson told reporters during a campaign visit to Hartlepool: “We do want to do some opening up on May 17 but I don’t think that the people of this country want to see an influx of disease from anywhere else.
“I certainly don’t and we have got to be very, very tough, and we have got to be as cautious as we can, whilst we continue to open up.”
Asked if people should be planning foreign holidays, he told reporters: “We will be saying more as soon as we can.
“I think that there will be some openings up on the 17th, but we have got to be cautious and we have got to be sensible and we have got to make sure that we don’t see the virus coming back in.”
Starmer criticised the “chopping and changing” of the travel corridors list introduced last year and said such a situation should be avoided this holiday season.