Claims that pub beer gardens could reopen by Easter appear to be in doubt after a Tory minister slammed MPs’ “arbitrary” timetable for easing lockdown.
Tory MPs had demanded pubs reopen in a “commercially viable” way by April 4 – and all lockdown rules were axed by April 30.
Last night the Mail on Sunday reported that their timetable “looked set to be met” by an “optimistic” Boris Johnson, who could reopen outdoor areas of pubs and restaurants by Easter Sunday.
But today Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab refused to back the MPs’ “arbitrary” timeline for axing restrictions at this point.
Ministers are looking at allowing two people from different households to meet for a picnic or coffee in the park from March 8.
Yet asked specifically if pubs could reopen for Easter, Boris Johnson’s deputy told Times Radio: “It’s difficult to say where we’ll be in such a relatively short space of time.”
Mr Raab added: “You’ve got to see how the vaccine rollout works and gauge the impact it has on the virus including the variations.
“[That] is why it’s difficult to set out, in precision with a cast iron guarantee, what the plans will be in the way that some of my colleagues wish us to.”
More than 60 MPs on the Covid Recovery Group had backed a letter to Boris Johnson demanding a rapid end to restrictions.
They said schools “must return” by March 8, and hospitality venues should “open for Easter in a way which enables them to be Covid-secure but also to operate in a commercially viable manner.”
The MPs added all restrictions should end by April 30, saying: “Once all nine priority groups have been protected by the end of April, there is no justification for any legislative restrictions to remain.
“These groups represent 99% of Covid deaths and about 80% of hospitalisations.”
Covid expert Prof Tim Spector today predicted Britain will be in a “much better place” to ease lockdown in two to four weeks.
Yet it takes time for immunity to begin after a first vaccine dose, and millions will still be awaiting second doses at that point.
Scientists have also warned restrictions can only be lifted step by step to avoid cases surging in the young, or raising the risk of a new Covid variant taking hold in the UK.
Meanwhile hotel quarantine is likely to remain in place to keep out variants which could resist a vaccine.
Reopening pubs outdoors for April would mean opening schools, shops and hospitality in just a month – which would not leave long enough to see what impact each change is having on the virus.
Mr Raab today said the government was “committed” to reopening England’s schools from March 8 but refused to back the rest of the MPs’ timetable.
He said the Prime Minister would be setting out his “roadmap” out of lockdown on February 22 as promised, but that any decisions would depend on the data.
“We do need to be very careful how we proceed. We have made good progress. We don’t want to see that unravel because we go too far too quick,” he told Sky News.
“We are not making what feels to me like a slightly arbitrary commitment without reviewing the impact that measures have had on the transmission and the hospital admissions of the virus.
“I don’t think you can set though an arbitrary target and not be evidence-led, which is why the review point on February 22 is so important.”
Mr Raab said the Government was confident it was “on track” to meet its target of offering a vaccine to its top four priority groups in the UK – including all over-70s – by tomorrow.
The Prime Minister and advisers will spend the week studying crucial data on infection rates, deaths and pressure on the NHS.
Mr Johnson will unveil proposals on February 22 for easing curbs, starting with schools on March 8.
People could once again be allowed to meet one other person, whom they do not live with, outside for recreation, not just exercise as under the current lockdown.
Restrictions on sports such as tennis and golf, where social distancing is easier, are likely to be eased in April.
There are many options and timescales for easing lockdown, according to the Sunday Times.
Under the longer-term plan, all shops, pubs and restaurants could reopen between early May and August, as the country goes through a series of national tiers reviewed every two weeks.
Under a “super-fast” plan, restaurants and pubs would restart in early May once all over-50s have been vaccinated.
But slower alternatives would see pubs and restaurants reopen by the spring bank holiday on May 31 or by mid-June.
The slowest route would be to reopen by August.
A Whitehall source said options two and three were most likely.
“You’ve got a most optimistic scenario to a least optimistic scenario,” they told the Sunday Times.
“The dates will move around according to what the pandemic’s doing, the influence of the vaccines.”