UK prime minister Boris Johnson has announced retailers and outdoor hospitality venues may reopen from 12 April in England, as he set out his long-awaited "roadmap" out of lockdown.
Johnson set out a four-step plan to begin "cautiously but irreversibly" easing restrictions as the UK vaccine rollout gathers pace. There will be least five weeks between each phase to assess their impact on virus levels, hospitalisations and deaths, but virtually all curbs in England could be lifted by late June.
He made the announcement in a speech to parliament, with a televised press conference due later and more detailed reopening plans published on the government's website.
Watch: PM sets out further steps of lockdown exit
Step one - School reopening and outdoor socialising with one other individual will be allowed first from 8 March. Two households or six people will be allowed to meet outdoors and the legal stay-at-home order will lapse from 29 March. But the first stage will see most restrictions remain, including working from home where possible and minimising travel.
Step two - 12 April at the earliest will see the re-opening of 'non-essential' retail, from markets to clothes and homeware stores to betting, vape and phone shops, and outdoor operations for hospitality venues such as pubs, restaurants, cafes and bars. Nail salons and hairdressers, indoor leisure facilities including gyms, and zoos and theme parks, are also likely to open at the same time. Holiday lets will be allowed for individual households.
Step three - International travel and indoor door hospitality venues such as restaurants, pubs, cafes and bars, as well as theatres, hotels, B&Bs and sports stadia will have to wait until at least 17 May to see restrictions lifted. Outdoor events will also be allowed for up to 30 people, and up to six friends and families will be able to meet indoors.
Step four - The government hopes to remove "all legal limits on social contact" including weddings, live events and nightclubs from 21 June, potentially using testing to limit infections.
"The vaccination programme has dramatically changed the odds in our favour," said Johnson. "The end really is in sight."
Johnson said working from home should continue until a review had been carried out on how long social distancing and face mask usage had been completed. Another review will look at the resumption of international travel, reporting by 12 April "so that people can plan for the summer."
A further review will look at how "COVID status certification" could allow venues to open, with the government "mindful" of concerns over exclusion, discrimination and privacy. Meanwhile free test kits will be provided for workplaces until the end of June.
Watch: What UK government COVID-19 support is available?
Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium (BRC), welcomed the "clarity" from the government and said retailers would be "encouraged" by reopening plans. But she warned non-food store sales had lost "£22bn and counting" in missed sales during lockdowns, with every day's closure risking sites shutting for good.
Dickinson called for extended business rate relief from April and a continued moratorium on debt enforcement to avoid further job losses and closures. "This would relieve struggling businesses of bills they cannot currently pay and allow them to trade their way to recovery.”
It comes as evidence grows the vaccine rollout is curbing transmission of COVID-19. New Public Health England analysis shows even one shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine had reduced hospitalisations and deaths by 75% among the elderly.
Many companies and backbench Conservative MPs are still likely to be frustrated that plans to let sites reopen are only tentative and gradual after a year of dismal trading. Data from retail data company Springboard on Monday showed footfall in UK high streets, retail parks and other shopping areas was 62.1% lower last week than a year earlier.
The government appears more keen than ever to avoid further U-turns on easing restrictions to stem dangerous infection rates, and so each stage of re-opening will only occur after tests have been met.
The tests include the continued success of the vaccine rollout, signs it is cutting hospitalisations and deaths, infections staying low enough to stop the NHS being overwhelmed, and no major problems from new COVID-19 variants.
Johnson added that the government could not rule out reimposing restrictions at local or even regional levels if needed to suppress new variants that "escape" the vaccines.
Watch: Labour leader calls on Johnson to learn lessons of past lockdowns ahead of speech