Ellen ManningFri, 5 February 2021, 8:13 am
Outdoor socialising and sport could be allowed again as soon as March or April, according to reports.
The Times reported that the two activities will be among the first to be allowed after children return to schools next month, and could be within weeks of the estimated March 8 date for schools reopening.
But one expert urged caution and said the suggestions that such a step back to normality could take place so soon was “slightly concerning”.
The Times reported that Boris Johnson’s roadmap out of lockdown will prioritise open-air contact and will lay out a timetable for when the hospitality sector and shops can reopen.
According to the newspaper, certain outdoor sports could also be back as soon as next month.
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The news comes amid differing views over how soon England should come out of lockdown, with reports that Chancellor Rishi Sunak has voiced concerns that scientific advisers are “moving the goalposts” for easing lockdown restrictions.
The Times suggested that when the hospitality sector is allowed to reopen, it will come with simplified rules and pubs will no longer have to serve alcohol with a ‘substantial meal’. It has also been suggested that the tier system could be scrapped.
Government sources have reportedly said any plans for easing lockdown are ‘tentative’ and only the date for the earliest return of pupils to schools has been agreed.
Dr Mike Tildesley, from the University of Warwick and a member of Sage subgroup the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (Spi-M), said suggestions of outdoor socialising and a return to sport next month were “slightly concerning”.
He told Times Radio: “I would really encourage the government to be approaching this with an element of caution.
“I think it is really good news that things are starting to fall, cases have been coming down for a few weeks and we’re now starting to get early signs that hospitalisations are coming down and deaths are coming down.
“The real concern here and where we really need to be careful is that it all comes down to R number. As soon as we start to relax, things go up.
“The key thing for me is we need to get our children back to school first – that’s clearly the most important thing.
“But I would really encourage it needs to be gradual stepping out of lockdown so that we don’t get a resurgence as we move into the spring.”
Dr Tildesley said it was important “to avoid a yo-yo situation where we unwrap things too rapidly, we get a resurgence and we have to lock down again”.
Pressed on whether outdoor socialising next month seems reasonable, he said: “I would say next month our real focus should be getting our children into school, and that should be the really key thing that’s top of the agenda.”
But he said “a little bit more mixing outdoors” might be reasonable but would need “very clear messaging from the government”.
He added: “I really appreciate the need for people getting back some level of normalcy. My concern is a resurgence by doing that, which will lead to a much greater problem as we get into the spring.”
Professor Graham Medley, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and chairman of the Spi-M group, said the government should “make decisions dependent on the circumstances, rather than being driven by a calendar of wanting to do things.”
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Vaccination offers a way out and it does reduce the impact of infection, but it doesn’t remove it completely.
“And so case numbers are still important because they represent the risk of having to go back into some kind of national measures.”
Asked whether case numbers needed to be as low as 1,000 a day, he said: “Clearly the lower the numbers of cases are, the more time you have to react if things start to go badly wrong.
“If the case numbers are very high, if they’re as high as they are at the moment, for example, then you will have very little time in which to react to avoid the kind of national lockdown that we’re in at the moment, which nobody wants.”
England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty said this week that the UK had passed the second COVID wave.