ALL restrictions on weddings, funerals, and other life events could be abolished in England from 21 June under the fourth and final stage of the Government’s four-month plan to reopen the country after a year of coronavirus lockdowns.
On Monday afternoon, the Government published a 68-page “data-led” document outlining how and when the current lockdown restrictions in England are to be lifted over the next few months. It was signed off by the Cabinet that morning.
The Prime Minister later told the House of Commons that each stage would be led by “data, not dates”. This “cautious but irreversible roadmap” has been split into four stages, which will be carried out in five-week intervals until June. These will progress, however, only if the vaccine programme continues to go to plan; infection rates and the number of hospitalisations and deaths continues to decline; and new variants of the virus do not alter the risk.
As expected, the first change will come on 8 March, when all schools across England will be permitted to reopen fully (currently, schools in England are offering classroom teaching only to children of key workers and those deemed to be in particular need). Secondary schools will be offered two-weekly testing. At this stage, in England, two people will also be able to meet socially outside — for example, for a drink or picnic in a public park. Care-home residents will be permitted a single visitor.
Currently, weddings of up to six guests (excluding the officiant and couple) are permitted only in exceptional circumstances (News, 4 January). From 8 March, weddings can take place in any circumstances with up to six guests.
The limit on funerals will remain at 30 with no more than six to attend wakes. Face coverings were not mentioned in the new guidance, but are currently mandatory in all indoor settings, including places of worship, which were not required to close under the national lockdown announced in January. Numbers for regular worship are currently limited to the capacity of the building, and households are not permitted to mix.
From 29 March, the stay-at-home rule will be scrapped. Outdoor gatherings of six people from up to six separate households or an unlimited number of people from two households will be permitted, and this will include those gatherings in private gardens. Outdoor sports facilities will reopen, and organised sport will return.
Under stage two, from 12 April, wedding receptions and wakes of up to 15 guests will be permitted. At this stage, while the rule of six will remain, non-essential retail, such as shops and hairdressers; public buildings, such as libraries and museums; indoor leisure, including swimming pools and gyms; and outdoor venues, including beer gardens, zoos, and theme parks, will all reopen. Hospitality curfews will end.
Under stage three, from 17 May, the limits on weddings, receptions, and wakes will increase to 30 people. The guidance states: “A broader range of stand-alone life events will also be permitted at this step, including bar mitzvahs and christenings.”
At this point, two households will be permitted to meet indoors, and cinemas, hotels, performances, and sporting events will reopen with social distancing.
Under the fourth and final stage, from 21 June, and only if the data-based conditions are met, the Government plans that all legal limits on social distancing will be abolished, alongside limits on weddings, funerals, receptions, and wakes, and other life events, including christenings.
The Prime Minister was criticised after the previous two lockdowns for lifting the restrictions too quickly and thereby causing a surge in cases, hospitalisations, and deaths. Outlining the new plan on Monday, Mr Johnson told the Commons: “No vaccine can ever be 100 per cent effective. . . There will always be some vulnerable people who are not protected by the vaccines. There is no credible root to a zero-Covid country or a zero-Covid world.”
alamyMayor of London Sadiq Khan receives his first dose of the Pfizer vaccine from Dr. Sue Clarke at a COVID-19 vaccination clinic at the Mitcham Lane Baptist Church, south London
To mitigate the risks, four reviews would be carried out throughout the fourth-month plan, he said, including a review of social distancing and face coverings, as well as international travel.
Also on Monday, a new study published by Public Health Scotland found that by the fourth week after the first dose of the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines, hospitalisations were reduced by 85 per cent and 94 per cent, respectively. The UK has adopted a policy of delaying the second administration of both vaccines by three months to maximise coverage.
Mr Johnson concluded: “The end really is in sight; and a wretched year will give way to a spring and a summer that will be very different and incomparably better than the picture we see around us today.”
The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, who chairs the Church of England’s Coronavirus Recovery Group, expressed her gratitude for the clarity of the proposed easing of regulations, which would enable people to plan.
“We will study the details and, working with government departments, refine our own advice for local churches in the weeks ahead. We all look forward to being able to meet in larger groups again later this year, and today’s announcement will be especially encouraging for couples planning weddings, among others.”
Speaking more generally, Bishop Mullally said: “This has been an incredibly testing time for the whole world — most of all the loved ones of those who have died. The financial cost of the pandemic has been enormous, and we will never truly know the cost of separation and loneliness on individuals and society.
“But we have also seen remarkable signs of hope. The rapid development and distribution of vaccines has been a phenomenal achievement and I want to thank everyone involved in the process. The way in which people have reached out to others has been inspirational.”
The chief education officer for the Church of England, the Revd Nigel Genders, was supportive of the return of all pupils by 8 March, which he said was an acknowledgment from the Prime Minister of “the impacts on children which have been an unwelcome result of lockdown necessity”.
Mr Genders continued: “Now our focus must be on a return where the well-being of children and staff comes first. [The Church] will continue to prioritise this and we are confident our school leaders will manage it in the very best way possible.”