Boris Johnson has hailed Monday's easing of the lockdown in England as "a small step to freedom", but warned that a new wave of the virus could hit the UK from abroad, overwhelming its defences.
Mr Johnson is considering a “traffic light” system for foreign travel, but ministers have struck a cautious note and have given no firm dates as to when overseas summer holidays might be allowed again.
The prime minister told a Downing Street press conference that the country had to “proceed with caution”, even as people in England were allowed to resume outdoor sports and meet family and friends in parks and gardens.
The “stay at home” order on Monday was removed and sports facilities, including tennis courts and outdoor swimming pools reopened. For the first time since December, people can meet outdoors in groups of up to six or a maximum of two households.
Patrick Vallance, chief scientific adviser, said that "so far everything is moving in the right direction" and Downing Street said the government's roadmap for lifting the lockdown was on track.
Ministers are expected to confirm on April 5th plans for the reopening of large parts of the economy on April 12th – as planned – including non-essential retail and pubs and restaurants serving customers outside.
But Mr Johnson warned that the country was still on alert for new variants of coronavirus arriving from abroad, suggesting ministers will be cautious about allowing foreign holidays to resume.
Mr Johnson will give an update on plans for foreign travel on April 5th; government officials said they expected it to include a traffic light system depending on a country’s Covid-19 status.
Travel to “green list” countries – those with high vaccination rates or low levels of infection – could resume first, but Mr Johnson again warned of the public health risks. The earliest date for foreign travel to restart is May 17th, but some officials believe the date will be later than that.
“We don’t know how strong our fortifications now are against another wave,” Mr Johnson said, adding that the arrival of new variants from abroad remained a constant threat.
Chris Whitty, chief medical officer, confirmed that there might be a danger of a "variant of concern" emerging against which current vaccinations were less effective.
‘Cup of tea’
Prof Whitty said the easing of England’s lockdown was likely to lead to “an uptick” in the number of cases – and this was to be expected – but said social distancing and outdoor gatherings “massively” reduced risk.
He added that young people who were less likely to have been vaccinated were now more likely to catch and transmit Covid-19; however, 99 per cent of deaths are among people aged 50 or over.
Mr Johnson welcomed the latest lockdown easing, saying millions of people had marked the occasion – often in spring sunshine – by taking part in outdoor sport or “joining someone else for a cup of tea in the garden”.
The government updated its public messaging campaign to “hands, face, space and fresh air”, with guidance published across social media, television and radio to highlight the health benefits of socialising outdoors.
In recent days, ministers have reiterated the need for the public to act responsibly as lockdown measures are eased. Sports and tourism minister Nigel Huddleston on Monday described the latest lifting of restrictions as "cautious, baby steps".
While the “vast majority” of the public could be trusted to follow the new rules, the police would challenge rule-breakers where necessary, Mr Huddleston told Sky News. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021