It's hard to believe that it's close to a year since the UK first went into lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic. Although the country is now entering in its third national lockdown, there is hope in sight. Thanks to newly approved vaccines, which are already being rolled out, it's looking likely that 2021 will be the year where restrictions will be eased, and families and friends can get together once again. So, when will the UK go back to "normal"? Here's everything we know so far.
As of Jan. 10, there are nearly 55,000 daily cases of coronavirus in the UK, and over 400 nearly 600 daily deaths. This is largely due to a new strain of the virus discovered in late December, which is 56% more infectious according to scientists.
The R number is currently between 1.1 and 1.4, with the NHS seeing a significant rise in hospital admissions over the past few weeks. As a result, England is now in Alert Level 5 — the highest level of the alert system introduced by the government last year. This means England is at the stage of the outbreak where there is a “risk of healthcare services being overwhelmed,” hence “extremely strict social distancing” measures must be put in place. As of Jan. 10, there are over 4,000 patients being admitted daily to hospitals across the UK.
Announced by Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Jan. 4, residents in England must stay at home except for permitted reasons. These exemptions include:
- Work (if you cannot work from home)
- Medical reasons (as well as getting tested for COVID)
- Essential shopping for food and other necessities
- Escaping domestic abuse
- Communal worship, weddings, and funerals with a limit on the number of attendees
The third lockdown became effective immediately after the Prime Minister’s address, and went into law by midnight on (Jan. 6). This lockdown replaces the four-tier system that was in place across the country, and it is expected to last until mid-February at the earliest. Johnson’s third lockdown plan was backed by MPs on Jan. 6, which allows the regulations to run up to March 31 at the latest.
You can still meet those in your support and childcare bubbles. You can only meet one person outside for exercise, and you can only exercise outside your home once a day. Those who were shielding in previous lockdowns must do so again.
Schools, colleges, and universities have been moved to online learning, with alternative arrangements for those taking GSCE’s, A-Levels, and other exams. Education secretary Gavin Williamson told MPs on Jan. 6 that exams will be replaced with teacher assessments, and that the government will put its “trust in teachers, not algorithms”. Nurseries will remain open, and free school meals will continue to be provided.
Outdoor sporting venues — including golf and tennis — are now closed, but outdoor playgrounds will remain open. Restaurants can continue to offer food delivery, but the sale of takeaway alcohol is banned.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced a stay at home order for Scottish residents earlier on Jan 4, which was introduced at midnight. The rules will apply across the Scottish mainland “until at least the end of January,” per BBC News, and island areas will remain in level three but will be “monitored carefully”, according to Sturgeon. Schools will close, and contrary to England’s lockdown rules places of worship will also be shut.
Wales has been in lockdown since Dec. 20 under a four-level system. After a review on Friday, January 8 First Minister Mark Drakeford announced restrictions would remain in place until the next review date of Jan 29. All schools in the country have been told to close and move to online learning until Jan. 18.
Already in the second week of a six-week lockdown, the stay at home order in Northern Ireland hadn’t been enforceable in law until now. “The message will be to stay at home unless you have a reason to leave home, and those reasons will be put into law,” said First Minister Arlene Foster. “We think it is necessary given the huge rise in cases here in Northern Ireland.” The issue of whether schools will closed was reviewed on Jan. 6, resulting in an extended period of remote learning.
The vaccine roll-out plan
The UK's first mass vaccination programme began on Dec. 2 following the approval of its first vaccine. On Jan. 4, the newly-approved Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine joined the programme. Currently, the vaccine is only offered to those most at risk of coronavirus. This includes those aged 80 or over, people who live or work in care homes, and health care workers at high risk, and is being offered in NHS hospitals and local vaccination centres run by GPs. This comes from advice given by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), who want to prioritise "the prevention of COVID-19 mortality and the protection of health and social care staff and systems."
The UK government has since decided to prolong the number of days between doses from 21 days to 12 weeks so more people can be vaccinated faster with a first dose. However, Pfizer/BioNTech’s vaccine was only trialled on the basis of the doses being administered 21 days apart for the best efficacy.
According to Health Secretary Matt Hancock, the UK now has enough stock to vaccinate "the whole population", but the next step is distributing it as quickly as possible across the country. Hancock told Sky News that "the vaccine is our way out of the pandemic," but refused to provide an exact figure of how much of the population could be vaccinated at the beginning of 2021. Most recently, Hancock pledged that all UK adults will be offered the vaccines by autumn at the earliest.
What scientists have said
If the nationwide vaccine program goes to plan, lead researcher of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine Professor Sarah Gilbert is optimistic that the UK could go back to something resembling normality by the summer — depending on whether infection rates continue to increase in January. "What we do over the next few weeks is really going to have a big impact on how long it's going to take to get back to normal," she told BBC's Andrew Marr Show. Until we see the impact Christmas mixing has had on the infection rate, it'll be difficult to tell where the finish line is.
So essentially, it all depends on the efficacy and speed at which the vaccination program can be rolled out across all age-groups, and how effective the third lockdown is to decrease the circulation of the virus. And even then, as we start to move towards some semblance of normal, social distancing and local restrictions may have to remain in place to keep the virus at bay. "We actually need to have the absolute amount of virus circulating to be very low," Steven Evans, professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told BBC's Science Focus magazine. "And we won't do that by vaccination alone until we're getting 50% of the population vaccinated or more, and that's going to be quite a bit of a long way off yet."
What the government has said
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said that restrictions are likely to be eased by Easter, depending on the success of the third lockdown and vaccination program. According to Johnson, chief medical officer Chris Whitty informed him that April 5 is when things could potentially be "much, much, much better," the Prime Minister told ITV News (via the Independent).
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has also suggested that the UK can go back to normal once the majority of vulnerable groups have been vaccinated, he told Sky News (via iNews). "We've basically got a road map until, what we expect to be spring, where those over 50, those who have got vulnerable health conditions and the key workers have had the [second jab] and at that point, we can transition back to something akin to normal."
This obviously all depends on how well restrictions are kept to, with one minister warning that these measures are “not boundaries to be pushed against,” per Sky News. Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi has said that though the government doesn’t want to make lockdown restrictions any tougher, they may need to be tightened if they’re not followed properly. “Just think, every social interaction you may have — that could be an incident or transfer, of transmission of the virus.”
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