Boris Johnson to ease Covid lockdown with Christmas shopping spree

Boris Johnson is to announce the return of Christmas shopping, gyms and outdoor sport across England as the government prepares to lift lockdown.

The prime minister will set out details today of a three-tier system of restrictions to come into force on December 3. He is expected to say that non-essential retail sales can resume across England, enabling people to do their Christmas shopping even if they live in high-infection areas.

Mr Johnson’s cabinet met last night to sign off the plans. In a victory for exercise enthusiasts, gyms are expected to reopen and outdoor sport will be allowed in all tiers.

The 10pm curfew on restaurants and pubs is likely to change to 11pm. Households will still be banned from mixing indoors in higher-infection areas, including hospitality venues and private homes.

Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, is hoping to conclude talks this week with the devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on allowing families to get together for a five-day period over Christmas.

The Cabinet Office said yesterday that restrictions on household mixing would be relaxed “for a small number of days” across the UK, allowing people to visit family in any part of the country. Sources suggested last night that up to three separate households would be allowed to meet, rather than four.

Mr Johnson is expected to tell MPs today: “The selflessness of people in following the rules is making a difference. The virus is not spreading nearly as quickly as it would if we were not washing our hands, maintaining social distance, wearing masks and so on.

“And in England, where nationwide measures came into effect at the start of this month, the increase in new cases is flattening off. But we are not out of the woods yet. The virus is still present in communities across the country, and remains both far more infectious and far more deadly than seasonal flu.”

Britain recorded another 18,662 coronavirus cases yesterday, down by 19 per cent in a fortnight; there were 398 deaths over a 24-hour period. The daily total includes 141 deaths omitted from Saturday’s government figures in error.

Despite the reopening of shops and gyms, restrictions in many areas are expected to be tougher than before the second lockdown in England. Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, said yesterday that the tiers would be tightened up.

The government is to forge ahead with its Operation Moonshot plan by enlisting the military to carry out mass-testing in regions under the toughest restrictions. Mr Johnson is expected to announce that a scheme piloted in Liverpool, where 30-minute tests have been made available to all, will be expanded to all Tier 3 alert areas. It is also understood that contacts of people who test positive will be offered a test each day for a week; they will need to isolate only if they are found to have the virus.

Many of the government’s scientific advisers believe that shopping is relatively low-risk if managed well, but that indoor socialising is far more dangerous.

Stephen Brett, a professor of critical care at Imperial College London who sits on the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies SPI-M modelling subgroup, said that ministers had been briefed on how households could form bubbles for festive meals.

“One approach might be to say, OK well you declare who’s in your Christmas bubble, but you have to stick to it. What you can’t do is have a Christmas Day bubble and a Boxing Day bubble and a New Year’s Eve bubble,” he said.

Tiers before lockdown

Under the present three-tier system, introduced before the second lockdown, the following rules apply:

Tier 1

“Rule of six” if meeting indoors or outdoors. Pubs and restaurants shut at 10pm.

Tier 2

Household mixing banned indoors; “rule of six” applies outdoors. Pubs and restaurants shut at 10pm.

Tier 3

No household mixing indoors or in some outdoor spaces. Pubs and bars must serve food to be able to serve alcohol; those not serving food must shut.

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