Speculation over reopening date grows as 'halfway house' restrictions mooted for after Easter

By James McAllister

- Last updated on GMT

Speculation over reopening date grows as 'halfway house' restrictions mooted for after Easter

Related tags: Coronavirus, lockdown

Speculation over when lockdown measures on hospitality could be lifted has continued to grow over the weekend, with the Government considering the introduction of 'halfway house' restrictions after Easter.

The Telegraph reports​ that ministers are considering proposals to begin reopening swathes of the economy in April under similar restrictions to those in place over the summer, with the 'rule of six' and social distancing measures in force in pubs and restaurants.

A return to full normality would be delayed for at least 12 to 14 weeks to allow for all over-50s to have their second dose of the Covid-19 vaccine, according to a source familiar with the discussions.

Ministers are keen to reopen hospitality venues in some capacity before the G7 summit in the second week of June, when the UK will host world leaders in Carbis Bay, Cornwall.

National measures will be eased in advance of the summit, allowing pubs, restaurants and tourism to begin to trade again.

Boris Johnson has previously suggested that England will return to the geographic tier system after the lockdown ends, but sources suggest the tiers may apply to the whole country rather than to specific regions.

“The appetite for regional tiers will only come if you have large swathes of the country that are significantly lower in case numbers and new variant case numbers and hospitalisations,” a source said.

Officials are understood to be planning the reopening of schools first, followed by an increase in personal freedoms, allowing meetings of friends and family outdoors, before hospitality opens with social distancing measures in place.

The plans could see a full reopening of the economy under 'normal' rules by the first week of July, after the over-50s have had a second dose of the vaccine.

Downing Street distanced itself from the proposals on Sunday night, with a No10 spokesman saying: “It’s not a timetable under discussion."

Growing uncertainty

News of the strategy comes amid growing uncertainty over when hospitality in England could get the green light to reopen. 

At the weekend, Matt Hancock warned it would be a 'long, long, long' time before cases numbers are low enough for the lockdown to be fully relaxed.

Speaking on Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday​ programme yesterday (24 January), the Health Secretary said there was 'early evidence that the lockdown is starting to bring cases down', but cautioned that any further new variants could throw the timetable for the easing of restrictions.

“The new variant I really worry about is the one that is out there that hasn’t been spotted,” he said.

Meanwhile, it was also reported at the weekend that the Government has quietly extended lockdown laws to give councils the power to close pubs, restaurants, shops and public spaces until 17 July this year.

The changes to the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) (No.3) Regulations 2020 were made as part of a review of the third lockdown by the Health Secretary earlier this month.

This law (originally introduced on 18 July last year) allows a local authority to close or limit access to premises or outdoor spaces in its area to prevent the spread of Coronavirus, including stopping events.

The regulation, which applies to England only, was originally due to expire last week.

A Department of Health source told The Telegraph​ ​that renewing the regulations was 'necessary' as the country is currently in a national lockdown, adding that the measures are still subject to the statuary review point.

Hospitality bosses cautiously welcomed the prospect of reopening under 'halfway house' restrictions from April.

Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UKHospitality, said: “We understand that restrictions might need to be in place for quite a period of time after we reopen.

“In that case, given that would have a significant impact on business viability and jobs within the sector, we would want to work with the Government to support us through that reopening and recovery period as we transition out of restrictions.

“Key to that would be extending the business rates holiday and the VAT cut.”

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