While the government has said very little about how lockdown restrictions in England will start to be relaxed, there is a lot to be read between the lines. With a week to go before Boris Johnson spells out his roadmap for lifting the lockdown, leaks about new rules and timetables being discussed in multiple meetings across Whitehall will be filtering into newspapers.
The chronology now seems to be taking shape. There is a hope of allowing a small easing of restrictions at the same time as schools reopen, to allow people to meet one other person for a coffee in the park, say, rather than just for exercise, without running the risk of being moved on by police.
That would put the whole country under something similar to the tier 4 rules that were in place across swathes of England in December. Apart from schools reopening, the difference to a full lockdown is only subtle.
Next on the list is some limited socialising outside, including the reopening of some low-risk sports such as golf or tennis. Next comes non-essential retail, close to the tier 3 measures, and then comes the return of hospitality, which will also be phased starting with outdoor dining, more akin to tier 2. Household mixing indoors – a priority for many people – is considered one of the most high-risk activities.
What is still unclear this week is the timetable, which will be spelled out by Johnson on Monday next week. Those dates will be framed as the earliest dates that restrictions can lift.
It will be highly dependent on the data and ultimately at the discretion of Boris Johnson, who is feeling extremely cautious, as Downing Street aides repeatedly brief. Much of that goes against his instincts. With the vaccine programme going great guns, you might expect Johnson’s innate boosterism to start straining at the leash. Yet he emphasises that while a longer lockdown is miserable, public anger if the country needs to enter a fourth lockdown will be far worse. For now, the public mood also seems to be on the side of caution.
Whereas last time there was intense internal pressure from the Treasury to press ahead with reopening the economy as infection rates fell and hospitalisations stabilised, this time there is no such pressure. Rishi Sunak has resigned himself that his March budget will be yet another rescue package and any hopes of recouping some of the billions spent in the past year will have to wait at least six months.
There is, of course, extreme agitation from a sizeable chunk of the parliamentary Conservative party. The Covid Recovery Group is demanding a return to normality by 1 May, with families able to holiday together over the bank holiday, international travel resuming and wedding receptions going ahead at full capacity. But those MPs have very little power to affect anything, short of writing letters to the prime minister. There is no opportunity coming down the track for a parliamentary rebellion.
No 10 is examining a number of different timetables, much of it dependent on new data on the efficacy of the vaccine in preventing community transmission. That study by Public Health England is not expected to be available to ministers until the end of the week.
Under a more optimistic timetable, Johnson could spell out an aim for friends to be meeting in pubs by April and families holidaying together at the English seaside from early summer – though international travel is widely believed to be written off because of fears about new variants.
Under a more pessimistic timetable in which the vaccine rollout slows or new variant threats develop, those dates could be pushed back far further. One government official said at the weekend that August was their most pessimistic presumption for the reopening of hospitality, which would be terminal for many businesses.