COVID-19: easing the lockdown in England & Scotland

For England, the Prime Minister made a statement yesterday, 22 February, to the Commons and appeared subsequently at a press conference to outline the Government’s plans for a staged easing of the lockdown in England. In brief, according to the subsequent press release:

  • From 8 March, all pupils in England’s schools are expected to return to class, with mass testing and wider use of facemasks in secondary schools and care home residents will be allowed one regular visitor provided that he or she is tested and wears PPE. The “Stay at Home” requirement will remain, but people will be able to leave home for recreation outdoors, such as a coffee or picnic with their household or support.
  • From 29 March, groups of up to six people or two households will be allowed to gather in parks and gardens. The “Stay at Home” requirement will end, but many lockdown restrictions will remain (for example, people should continue to work from home where possible, and overseas travel will remain banned other than for a small number of reasons).
  • From 12 April, shops, hairdressers, gyms, outdoor hospitality and self-contained holiday accommodation may be able to reopen. There will be no need for customers to order a “substantial meal” (even a Scotch egg) with alcohol, though customers must order, eat and drink while seated. Funerals can continue with up to 30 people, and the numbers able to attend weddings, receptions and commemorative events such as wakes will rise to 15 (from 6).
  • From 17 May, two households or a group of six may be able to meet indoors in a pub or other hospitality venue and cinemas, museums, hotels, performances and sporting events will also reopen. Most social contact rules will be lifted, though gatherings of over 30 people will remain illegal. As well as funerals, up to 30 people will be able to attend weddings, receptions and wakes. Other life events that will be permitted include bar mitzvot and baptisms.
  • From 21 June it is hoped that all legal limits on social contact will be removed, with the final closed sectors of the economy, such as nightclubs, reopened. The Government states that “This will also guide decisions on whether all limits can be removed on weddings and other life events.”

The full accompanying document, COVID-19 Response – Spring 2021, made it clear, however, that easing the lockdown was conditional upon a number of factors and that, before proceeding to the next step, the Government would examine the data to assess the impact of the previous one, based on four tests:

“a. The vaccine deployment programme continues successfully.

b. Evidence shows vaccines are sufficiently effective in reducing hospitalisations and deaths in those vaccinated.

c. Infection rates do not risk a surge in hospitalisations which would put unsustainable pressure on the NHS.

d. Our assessment of the risks is not fundamentally changed by new Variants of Concern.”

There will be a minimum of five weeks between each step: four weeks for the data to reflect changes in restrictions followed by seven days’ notice of the restrictions to be eased.

As to the likely impact on places of worship, the progression appears to be like this:

  • Weddings may currently only take place in an emergency. The expectation is that from 8 March, six people will be able to attend a wedding and it will not need to be an emergency, from 12 April fifteen people will be able to attend a wedding and a reception afterwards, from 17 May that figure will increase to thirty and (at least in principle), from 21 June all attendance restrictions will be lifted. There is currently no change in the requirement for those attending a wedding to wear face coverings and maintain social distancing.
  • Attendance at funerals will continue to be limited to thirty until the end of restrictions.

Following the Prime Minister’s statement to Parliament, the Bishop of London, who chairs the Church of England’s Coronavirus Recovery Group, commented that the Church would study the details of the statement 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”.

Also on Monday, the Cabinet Office updated its guidance to reiterate that “England is still in a national lockdown. You must stay at home, leaving only where permitted by law, and follow the rules in this guidance”. However, places of worship, for which there is separate guidance, may remain open.

For Scotland, the First Minister made an announcement this afternoon on a phased ending to lockdown, as folllows:

  • In Phase 1 (22 February) early learning and childcare and schools reopened for Primary 1-3 pupils and senior phase pupils for essential practical work. There was a limited increase in the provision for vulnerable children. Care homes were opening to facilitate meaningful contact between relatives/ friends and residents.
  • In Phase 2 (unlikely before 15 March) there would be more school reopening and non-contact outdoor group sports would be permitted for 12- to 17-year-olds. Socialising rules would be eased to allow outdoor meetings of four people from two households.
  • In Phase 3 – (at least three weeks later – possibly 5 April) the “Stay-at-Home” requirement would be removed, with a third and final phase of schools reopening if required. Places of worship would be able to open with the restricted numbers that were permitted before 8 January. The essential retailers’ list would be expanded slightly, and click-and-collect resumed for non-essential retail.
  • In Phase 4 – possibly 26 April) there would be limited other easing within Level 4, including permitting non-essential work in people’s homes, and a return to a variable Levels approach, to enable the graduated opening up of economic and social activity.

The Scottish Strategic Framework Update is here.

Cite this article as: Frank Cranmer, "COVID-19: easing the lockdown in England & Scotland" in Law & Religion UK, 23 February 2021, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2021/02/23/covid-19-easing-the-lockdown-in-england/

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