Boris Johnson sets out roadmap to ease COVID-19 lockdown restrictions

Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson

The Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced the government’s roadmap to cautiously ease the coronavirus lockdown restrictions in England.

In a statement to parliament yesterday evening, he paid tribute to the workers administering the UK’s vaccination programme, which has helped to cut infection rates and reduce the spread of the virus.

He also set out the latest vaccine efficacy data, with Public Health England finding that one dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine reduces hospitalisations and deaths by at least 75%. Analysis of the AstraZeneca vaccine efficacy continues, with promising early results.

Johnson announced that these results now mean that the government is able to slowly ease restrictions all across England at the same time.

He repeatedly insisted that the roadmap was ‘guided at all stages by data, not dates’.

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 continued success of the vaccine deployment programme; evidence that shows the 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; and following an assessment of the risks that the virus 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.

Getting children back into school has been Johnson’s top priority in recent weeks, and from 8 March all children and students will return to face to face education in schools and college. By this point, everyone in the top four vaccine priority cohorts – as determined by the independent JCVI – will have received the first dose of their vaccine and developed the necessary protection from it. Some university students on practical courses will be able to return to face to face learning. Also from this date wraparound childcare and other supervised children’s activities 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 regular visitor provided they are tested and wear PPE.

Also from this date, the ‘stay at home’ requirement will remain, but people 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.

As part of step one, there will be further limited changes 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, providing greater flexibility for families to see each other. This includes in private gardens.

Outdoor sports facilities, such as golf, tennis and basketball courts, will be allowed to reopen, and people can take part in formally organised outdoor sports.

At this point, the stay at home order will end, although many lockdown restrictions will remain.

For businesses, employees should continue to work from home where possible, and overseas travel remains banned, aside for a small number of reasons.

The subsequent steps are set out as follows, when Step 2 is introduced – no earlier than 12 April.

Non-essential retail, personal care premises, such as hairdressers and nail salons, and public buildings, such as libraries and community centres, will reopen.

Most outdoor attractions, including zoos, and theme parks, will also reopen although wider social contact rules will apply in these settings to prevent indoor mixing between different households. Drive-in cinemas and drive-in performances will also be permitted.

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. There will be no need for customers to order a substantial meal with alcohol, and no curfew – although customers must order, eat and drink while seated.

Self-contained accommodation, such as holiday lets, where indoor facilities are not shared with other households, can also reopen.

Funerals can continue with up to 30 people, and the numbers able to attend weddings, receptions and commemorative events such as wakes will rise to 15 (from 6).

Step 3 will take place no earlier than 17 May and the following will be made legal.

Regarding the outdoors, most social contact rules will be lifted – although gatherings of over 30 people will remain illegal.

Outdoor performances such as outdoor cinemas, outdoor theatres and outdoor cinemas can reopen. Indoors, the rule of six or two households will apply – although this will remain under review whether it is safe to increase this.

Indoor hospitality, 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 (whichever is lower) will also be allowed, as will those in outdoor venues with a capacity of 4000 people or half-full (whichever is lower).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). The test event for this will be the FA Cup Final.

Up to 30 people will be able to attend weddings, receptions and wakes, as well as funerals. Other life events that will be permitted include bar mitzvahs and christenings.

Finally, in Step 4 – which will take place no earlier than 21 June, will see a few more restrictions lifted. It is hoped all legal limits on social contact can be removed.

The aim is to reopen nightclubs, and lift restrictions on large events and performances that apply in Step 3, although tis will also guide decisions on whether all limits can be removed on weddings and other life events.

In the meantime, the vaccination programme continues at pace, with the announcement of a new target to offer a first dose of the vaccine to every adult by the end of July. The government hopes that the increased protection offered by vaccines will gradually replace the restrictions, with the roadmap published today providing the principles of the transition.

MPs will have an opportunity to vote on the regulations that will enable this roadmap in Parliament in the coming weeks.

Johnson said: “This is the roadmap that will guide us – cautiously but irreversibly – towards reclaiming our freedoms while doing all we can to protect our people against COVID-19. Today’s measures will apply in England, but we are working closely with the Devolved Administrations who are setting out similar plans.

“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.”

Travel and hospitality stocks take off at the open as lockdown exit mapped

According to Hargreaves Lansdown, the following travel and hospitality firms saw a surge in stock prices following the PM’s announcement.

  • EasyJet up 11%
  • IAG up 8%
  • TUI up 6%
  • Whitbread up 4%
  • J D Wetherspoon up 3%

Susannah Streeter, senior investment and markets analyst, Hargreaves Lansdown shared her views.

The roadmap to reopening has accelerated the recovery in travel and hospitality stocks with fresh rises since the market open.

The palpable sigh of relief that there ares date to target for struggling pub and restaurant chains, has translated into a share price rally for the sectors.

Although international travel won’t begin until at least 17th May, news that the government’s global taskforce will reconvene in April to recommend how holidays can resume has been a boost for the industry which has been anxious for a sense of direction.

Easyjet shares took off at the open, soaring 11 per cent while British Airways owner IAG lifted by 8% and there was another upwards swing of 6% for tour operator TUI. Premier Inn owner Whitbread added another 4% as trading got underway. Intercontinental Hotels Group rose by more than 3%, while JD Wetherspoon and the Restaurant Group also rose by around 3%.

Restaurants and bars who poured money into providing outdoor dining, may start to see more return on their investment given customers can return to exterior spaces from April 12th.

Many innovative solutions like  pop-up waterproof booths, terraces on parking spaces and retractable awnings have been mothballed despite high hopes they would help lure in customers during winter months. Many of these creative endeavours have gone to waste during lockdowns but could still come into their own as restrictions ease.

Indoor dining and hotel stays won’t resume until May 17th, so the next few months is still likely to see a further drain on finances for many struggling travel and hospitality businesses. All eyes will be on further announcements expected on Budget day about the extension to the furlough scheme and fresh emergency funding for companies at risk.

Small firms urge Chancellor to deliver on “whatever it takes” pledge as road map brings some clarity

Responding to this afternoon’s Prime Ministerial address in the House of Commons, Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) National Chairman Mike Cherry shared his views.

“This road map provides some much-needed clarity for small businesses in England, which have faced an incredibly tough year. The Government’s commitment to helping small firms and sole traders access testing and its recognition of the plight faced by suppliers are welcome.

“It’s important for this plan to protect against a fourth Covid19 wave and accompanying lockdown, the imposition of which would be devastating for the 250,000 firms that fear closure this year. Small businesses are clear that recovery depends on an accelerating vaccine programme, access to an improved testing infrastructure for firms of all sizes, the safe return of schools, and the right safety measures within businesses.

“The Chancellor must deliver on the Prime Minister’s “whatever it takes” pledge at next week’s Budget. On one side of the coin we have continued restrictions – on the other, we need corresponding business support.

“Whatever it takes means bringing those overlooked by current support measures into the fold, including suppliers, directors and the newly self-employed. Upwards of a million small business owners and sole traders are currently receiving no direct help whatsoever.

“Extension of business rates reliefs and measures to mitigate the burden of emergency debt will provide small firms with some urgently-needed breathing space as they fight to make it through to the summer.

“Fundamentally, the implementation of, and deadlines for, business support measures need to reflect this road map to avoid forcing the great businesses of tomorrow under before they’ve had a chance to realise their potential.”

Ahead to today’s unemployment statistics, Mike Cherry added: “Official employment statistics do not fully reveal the challenges currently faced in the jobs market. Small firms are having to make incredibly hard choices about staff numbers and are struggling to recruit.

“The Chancellor should take action next week: cutting employer national insurance contributions and reintroducing a job retention bonus.

“We also need to help those currently out of work who are thinking about launching a new businesses through funding for the New Enterprise Allowance and Start-Up Loans programme, along with a fresh Kickstart Start-Up initiative to help those who have been on furlough to be their own boss and launch a venture themselves.”

Industry reaction to roadmap announcement

Michelle Ovens CBE, Founder, Small Business Britain, said: “It is encouraging to see progress in a roadmap towards the easing of lockdown today. The reopening of schools is good news, not just for children, but for working parents, particularly those juggling their own businesses and home-schooling.

“However, for many small businesses there is still a long way to go. It is clear that a lot of sectors will continue to face tough restrictions for a much longer period than ever anticipated and so the government support for this critical part of the economy needs to grow accordingly.

“Small businesses need greater certainty about what reopening will look like for them, so they can plan for their staff and their survival. Crucially, they will also need stepped-up support to bridge this gap. It is vital that the Budget next week focuses on additional support for small firms. Measures to reduce their costs, like an extension to furlough and the business rates holiday, cuts to VAT rates and other help to pay bills through extensions to local grants and the Bounce Back Loan scheme, will all be welcome.

“I would also hope to see a longer-term plan to support small businesses to not only survive and recover, but to return to growth. There is a need for a strategy to address and leverage the sweeping structural changes to the U.K. economy that the pandemic has wrought, such as changes to the high street and the mass adoption of digital and remote-working that has changed the face of business.”

Dan Simms, Co-Head of Retail Agency at Colliers, comments: “I think it is a profoundly depressing, over cautious and unwelcome announcement for the retail and hospitality sector. We have a world leading vaccine programme that is now rapidly changing the situation, yet the Government seems to be unable to even attempt to balance health, societal and economic considerations and shows no real understanding of the scale of the emergency for the sector. The dates announced will be simply too late for many businesses that have been able to trade for only small periods over the last year and the Government support merely papers over a few cracks.”

David Fox, Co-Head of Retail Agency at Colliers, comments: “Whilst it is understandable that the Government remains cautious and reluctant to commit to re-opening the retail and hospitality sectors, without a continuation of support and clarity on business rates and the arrears moratorium, there will inevitably be further failures. It is incumbent for the Government to bridge the uncertainty of the immediate weeks, providing the time and hope that businesses need to prepare for a return to normal trading and benefit from the predicted consumer spending spree.”

Jason Thomas, CEO of event payment platform Tappit, said: “We’re extremely excited to see a roadmap that outlines the return to live events.  The world has changed significantly in the past year and people expect a better, safer experience as they plan to return to arenas and stadiums. The pandemic has accelerated the move to cashless and we’ve seen huge demand for our solution – it is the perfect time to make the shift. We’ve been proud to work with teams across the US to bring back fans safely and as passionate sports and music fans ourselves, we’re looking forward to supporting a safe return for venues and events across the UK.”