Groups of up to six people allowed to meet in England from Monday

Heather Stewart Political editor Richard Adams

Up to six friends or relatives will be able to gather in parks and gardens from Monday, two metres apart, Boris Johnson has said in a cautious easing of lockdown restrictions in England.

Dentists will also be able to reopen from 8 June, provided they take safety precautions including using protective equipment, and it was confirmed that schools can go ahead with plans to reopen next week.

The prime minister announced the latest modest easing of the lockdown at the daily coronavirus briefing, though the chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, struck a markedly more cautious tone, stressing the fact that the infection rate, or R, remains “close to 1”.

Vallance pointed out there are still around 54,000 new cases a week, which he called “a significant burden of infection”. He also stressed the importance of the new test-and-trace system working effectively, to keep the pandemic under control.

Johnson said: “We will now allow people to meet in gardens, and other private outdoor spaces. These changes mean that friends and family can start to see their loved ones: perhaps seeing both parents at once, or both grandparents at once.”

“I know that for many people this will be a long-awaited and joyful moment,” he added. Those from different households will have to maintain physical distancing.

Separately, a letter sent to dental practices by the chief dental officer said: “We support the full resumption of routine dental care, in a way that is safe, operationally deliverable and allows dental practices flexibility to do what is best for patients and their teams.”

It comes after thousands of people complained of toothache and other problems during lockdown.

Johnson confirmed that outdoor retail, such as markets and car showrooms, will be allowed to open from Monday, and other non-essential shops a fortnight later, provided they abide by Covid-secure guidelines.

He said the government had met all five tests ministers set themselves for deciding when lockdown restrictions could be loosened. These included a sustained fall in the daily death rate, sufficient testing capacity and sufficient personal protective equipment (PPE). “We are confident that we have moved beyond the peak,” he said.

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The prime minister said the changes were modest. “I cannot, and will not, throw away all the gains we have made together – and so the changes we have made are limited and cautious,” he said.

Ministers hope the move to allow outdoor meetings with friends and family will help to assuage public frustration at the lockdown, which has now been in place for nine weeks.

When the government announced its coronavirus “roadmap” this month, it said it was examining a plan for “bubbles”, which would see two or more households allowed to in effect combine for social purposes. But that has been rejected in favour of a simpler approach, which will allow meetings with individuals from different households, as long as they take place outdoors.

Previously it was only permitted for people to meet one to one – and only in parks, not private gardens. Families will now be able to have barbecues with relatives.

The chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, confirmed at the briefing that it would be acceptable for them to go inside to use the toilet – as long as they washed their hands thoroughly and wiped down surfaces afterwards.

There will be no respite for those most vulnerable to the virus, who will continue to be asked to “shield” themselves by remaining at home.

“I do understand how difficult his has been for you especially; and I want to thank you to all the efforts you have gone to, because your efforts have helped the NHS to cope,” Johnson said.

Although primary schools in England opening their doors to more pupils from 1 June has been widely trailed, the official confirmation gives headteachers just three days of half-term holiday to make final preparations and reach out to parents.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “It is important to understand that many primary schools will not be open to all eligible pupils on Monday morning, and that they will be phasing in these children over a period of time, while putting in place limits on class sizes and implementing other safety measures.”

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Nurseries and childcare providers in England are also being told they can reopen from 1 June. But Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, warned: “Many parents will be understandably hesitant about sending their children to a childcare provider reopening on Monday and as such it is very likely that nurseries, pre-schools and childminders will see a significant drop in demand for places in the short-term, which will result in a loss of income.”

Whitty said the government’s advisers hope to “plot a path” out of shielding, as the infection rate in the community declines further – suggesting it would happen in stages.

Johnson met the first ministers of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to discuss the changes earlier on Thursday. Nicola Sturgeon announced similar easing measures for Scotland earlier on Thursday.

The prime minister said: “Although all parts of the UK are moving in the same direction, it is important to note health is devolved and different parts of the UK are quite properly all moving at different speeds.”