There are going to be lots of disappointed people when they hear Boris Johnson set out Monday’s lockdown lifting plan.
Those who had pinned their hopes on near-instantaneous reopening of shops that were shut, those wanting to go to a pub garden with friends, those wanting to go away to a holiday cottage in the Easter holiday will be among them. None of those will be happening in March.
The prime minister has already explained why: he wants the 60-page plan he lays out to parliament to be “irreversible”, a highly ambitious objective given he knows neither the future path of the disease nor what havoc undiscovered coronavirus variants will cause.
There are people around the cabinet table who wanted him to reopen faster, with Chancellor Rishi Sunak at the top of this list.
However, all those attending Sunday’s meeting signed off on the eventual plan. It will now be put before the full cabinet on Monday morning, parliament Monday afternoon, and the country via a TV address and news conference at 7pm. The single common thing that united those cabinet ministers who met late on Sunday morning was a desire for Britain – or at least England, whose lockdown lifting plan this roadmap will govern – never to go back into a fourth lockdown.
“We could not countenance that economically, socially or indeed politically,” said one government source.
The plan has four stages, with gaps of several weeks between each, Health Secretary Matt Hancock confirmed to Sophy Ridge on Sunday. At the end of the fourth step, England will be much closer to being back to normal with some important caveats, albeit with social distancing still in place and uncertainty over foreign travel.
The government has confirmed the timetable for Stage 1, which is split across two dates in March because of school term time. All schools will be open from 8 March, coupled with a slight relaxation that means an individual can meet one other person outside socially rather than just for exercise. This means people can sit down for a coffee, drink or picnic – which is not currently permitted.
Schools and outdoor mixing could be first areas where lockdown will be eased
From 29 March, as the two-week Easter school holidays begin, more social contact will be permitted. Outdoor gatherings of either six people or two households can take place. This can include seeing friends in private gardens, heralding the return of the barbeque. Also from 29 March, outdoor sports facilities such as tennis or basketball courts will reopen.
Reopening enthusiasts will note with disappointment what is not on this list. Those who wanted to go for holidays in England in self-catering accommodation over the Easter school holidays will not be able to. Nor will there be any reopening of outdoor hospitality on 29 March, meaning pub gardens are shut and outdoor dining will not be possible. There will be a wait of weeks if not months for these, and it is likely to provoke grumbling.
On Monday afternoon, Boris Johnson will also set out the policy decisions underpinning his lockdown lifting plan, and this might prove to be the biggest surprise of all.
As each part of society lifts lockdown, government will monitor its impact using four tests. They will want to know infection rates are not surging in a way that puts unsustainable pressure on the NHS, evidence the vaccinations are bringing down hospitalisations and deaths, a continued successful vaccine deployment and an assessment that there are no new significant variants of concern.
This list is important because of what it misses off: the R number which measures the reproduction rate of the disease. This single metric which was central to Mr Johnson’s approach at the start of the pandemic – and is no longer a key driver of when to change tack and lift lockdown. To put it another way, the R number could rise above one and lockdown lifting will still continue as long as the other metrics show the virus in abeyance. This is a bold approach, which may cause relief for some Tory MPs worried that the rest of this programme is too slow.
This plan still contains huge risks. In the end Mr Johnson knows it will be judged on whether it works. And that means never locking down again.
Follow live coverage on Sky News on Monday as the PM is expected to address the House of Commons at 3.30pm and lead a Downing Street news conference at 7pm