Covid roadmap: Is Norfolk ready for March 29 lockdown easing?
- Credit: Daniel Moxon
From this time next week, people across Norfolk , Waveney and the rest of England will be able to meet family and friends outside in small groups for the first time since Christmas.
England has been in full lockdown since January, though Norfolk was in Tier Four of the regional system from Boxing Day – with a similar level of restrictions.
Part two of that first phase comes into place on March 29, when the 'stay home' message will end.
Outdoor gatherings of either six people or two households will be allowed to meet, including in private gardens.
This has been timed with the week that most school children will break up for Easter school holidays, to allow them to see family members from whom they have been apart for a long time.
Outdoor sports facilities will also be allowed to reopen, meaning people will have more options than simply walking, running or cycling for their daily exercise.
And organised sports like Sunday league football will be allowed to take place once again.
It comes after Norfolk's health chief Dr Louise Smith said officials were keeping "a sharp eye" on a small rise in Covid-19 cases.
Figures for the seven days up to March 16, the latest available, showed Covid rates in Norfolk had dropped again slightly overall to 34.8 per 100,000 people, far lower than the England average of 57.1.
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There was a 71pc rise in the rate in north Norfolk, but the dramatic size of that increase comes from how low the numbers are – it stands at 16.2 compared to 9.5 the previous week.
Dr Smith emphasised an increase in testing, thousands of which have been carried out in schools, was "bound to pick up more cases".
And when asked whether it is the right time for restrictions to be relaxed, Dr Smith said: "The evidence shows it is safer to meet outdoors than indoors, and therefore it is a logical next step.
"The additional risk of being outside with other people is fairly low.
"The combination of the current data and the small step of meeting outdoors feels on track."
As of 8am on Saturday, March 20, NHS England figures show there were 421 beds being occupied by Covid-19 patients across all NHS and private sector hospitals in the East of England.
That number has not been so low since October 26 last year – the peak in between came on January 13, when 4,306 beds were filled in the region.
On March 16, the latest figures available, there were just 29 Covid patients in beds across all hospitals in Norfolk, including community hospitals.
That is down down from 44 the week before, and the lowest since October 14 when there were 28.
On Saturday, it was announced half of all UK adults have now had their first dose of the vaccine.
Professor Paul Hunter, from the UEA's Norwich Medical School, believes the rollout's progress means hospitalisations should be lower in the case of a third wave.
And responding to a survey conducted by this newspaper, only a small minority of people said they do not feel safer as a result of progress being made in terms of vaccines.
The government has four tests which need to be met before each further step is taken along the roadmap to easing restrictions.
Officials must be satisfied the vaccine rollout is on track, evidence continues to show vaccines are reducing hospitalisations and deaths, infection rates do not threaten to overwhelm the NHS and no new variants are changing the risks posed by Covid-19.
The criteria were met for the March 8 easing, which allowed the return to schools to go ahead from that date.
As the March 29 changes are still part of the roadmap's first step, the criteria do not need to be met again and therefore the adaptations to the rules are set to go ahead as planned.
There are least five weeks between each actual step, meaning the next easing after next week is currently pencilled in for April 12 –exactly 35 days after the first step was made.
The official wording in the roadmap for these dates is "no earlier than April 12" as, if the criteria are not met, it will push back the whole plan to ensure the five-week gap is maintained between steps two and three, and three and four.
The five-week gaps are broken down into two sections – the first four weeks are to allow for the impact of the change in restrictions to be reflected in data, and then the final week is notice for whether or not the planned easing will go ahead.
So, by Monday, April 5, we will know whether or not non-essential retail will be able to reopen once again from the following week.