By Kate Holton and Estelle Shirbon
LONDON (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will announce plans on Monday to reopen England’s schools and allow people to see family and friends, part of a phased exit from COVID-19 lockdown that is aided by one of the world’s fastest vaccine rollouts.
With more than 120,000 fatalities, Britain has suffered the world’s fifth-highest official death toll from the pandemic and its $3 trillion economy its biggest crash in over 300 years.
But a fast start to the vaccine rollout plus a tough near-two-month national lockdown means Johnson can now set out a cautious easing of restrictions in England.
“Our decisions will be made on the latest data at every step, and we will be cautious about this approach so that we do not undo the progress we have achieved so far and the sacrifices each and every one of you has made,” he said on Twitter.
“Our priority has always been getting children back into school which we know is crucial for their education and wellbeing. We’ll also be prioritising ways for people to reunite with loved ones safely,” he said, ahead of his full announcement in parliament due at 1530 GMT.
Lawmakers will have a chance later to vote on Johnson‘s plan. Authorities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which are responsible for their own public health, will also ease restrictions over the coming months.
Overall coronavirus cases hovered around 11,000 a day last week, compared with a high of over 80,000 in late December.
Nadhim Zahawi, the minister in charge of the vaccine rollout, said English schools would reopen on March 8. They have been open only to vulnerable pupils and to key workers’ children since Jan. 5, with all others learning remotely from home.
The reopening of schools is expected to have a positive impact on the economy, freeing up parents who have had to juggle work and home schooling.
Zahawi also said on LBC Radio that two people from separate households would be allowed to meet outdoors from March 8, while from March 29 outdoor socialising would be permitted for groups of six people maximum, or for two households together. Outdoor sports will also be allowed to resume from March 29, he said.
SPEEDY VACCINE ROLLOUT
Johnson faces pressure from politicians in his ruling Conservative Party to restart the economy but also from scientific advisers who fear a resurgence of the virus if he unlocks too quickly.
He has appeared much more cautious in recent months than earlier in the pandemic, when he was eager to reopen shops, restaurants and pubs.
Health minister Matt Hancock said on Sunday that after each step to ease restrictions, there would be a pause of a couple of weeks to assess the impact before any further relaxation.
Johnson is expected to say the easing of restrictions will be determined by such factors as the speed and success of the inoculation programme, the state of infection rates and the impact of any new variants of the virus.
Britain moved faster than many other Western countries to secure vaccine supplies and has been inoculating people rapidly since December, a strategy that has driven sterling and stock markets higher on hopes of an economic rebound.
The pound hit a new three-year high of $1.4050 in early London trading on Monday.
Some 17.6 million Britons, over a quarter of the 67 million population, have now received a first dose, behind only Israel and the United Arab Emirates in vaccines per head of population. The government aims to give a first dose to all adults by the end of July.
(Editing by Gareth Jones)