Hopes raised that the end of lockdown is nearing
- Credit: PA
Hopes have risen for the easing of lockdown with suggestions that people could be free to meet outdoors and drink and dine outside soon after the opening of schools next month.
Following numerous reports over the weekend, Boris Johnson has said he is "optimistic" he will be able to set out plans for a "cautious" easing of lockdown restrictions later this month.
The prime minister, who will set out his "roadmap" out of lockdown on February 22, said that the Government's priority remained the opening of schools on March 8, to be followed by sectors in non-essential shops and hospitality as conditions allowed.
"Our children's education is our number one priority, but then working forward, getting non-essential retail open as well and then, in due course, as and when we can prudently and cautiously, of course we want to be opening hospitality as well," he said.
Stuart Allen, headteacher of Mile Cross Primary Academy in Norwich, said it was vital headteachers and teaching unions were consulted and schools were given time to prepare for the return of all pupils.
“We want the earliest notice possible,” he said. “We are all looking at that March 8 date as a day when we are going to be opening fully to some extent, whether that is partially or a gradual return.
“We will bend over backwards to ensure we can get as many children as safely as we possibly can. What I don’t want to be doing is opening when it is unsafe and then all of a sudden we are closing down bubbles or parts of the schools because we have multiple infections.
“We don’t want to be making knee jerk decisions not only for us but also for parents and the community.
“I don’t want to be in the position again where I am letting parents down again because in January it was at incredibly short notice. I want to give parents as much notice as I possibly can.”
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Downing Street refused to be drawn on weekend reports suggesting that restrictions on meeting friends in a park could be among the first to be lifted once schools are back.
"Whilst there is some reason for cautious optimism, we remain in a difficult situation, with the pressures on the NHS still very significant. We have to go at the pace that the latest data and evidence allows," one source said.
"Our biggest priority remains schools, and we will set out our plan for reopening them, and gradually reopening our economy and society on February 22."
The Sunday Times said the return of schools — a move ministers know will raise the coronavirus R number for infections - could be followed by adults being allowed to sit down outdoors for a coffee or on a park bench with one friend, or with members of their own family — a slight relaxation of the current rule.
Paul Hunter, professor of medicine at University of East Anglia's Norwich Medical School, said the rate of the fall in coronavirus cases has increased hopes that restrictions on households' mixing could be lifted next month.
And he thought diners could return to restaurants “probably around the same time, maybe April”.
Colin Keatley, managing director of the Fat Cat brewery in Norwich, which also runs the The Fat Cat, Cat and Canary and Fat Percy pubs, said landlords were waiting for clarity before making any plans to reopen.
He said: “We take all the speculation with a pinch of salt until the Government makes the statement on February 22. It’s in the back of our minds already to be ready for opening up in the spring and we are pretty well geared up.”
Restrictions such as the 10pm curfew and 'substantial meal' requirement could be scrapped as part of a "simplification" of rules to ease confusion.
“All these things were brought in bit by bit over the last 10 months and it didn’t really work,” said
Mr Keatley, who has managed to main 10pc of his trade through a beer delivery service.
“Even if customers are allowed to come up to the pub for a takeaway as they were up until December 26 that would make a big difference for us.”