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LONDON — Britons will return to a social life of sorts on Monday — but for Prime Minister Boris Johnson, a week of big decisions looms.
From Monday, people in England are no longer required to stay at home by law and will be allowed to play outdoor sports and meet outside in groups of six.
It’s the latest tentative step to ease the strict lockdown imposed in January. But ministers, officials and scientists will spend this week crunching data and making big economic and ethical decisions about the conditions they might attach to further freedoms like international travel, and even a trip to the pub or theater.
“We must remain cautious, with cases rising across Europe and new variants threatening our vaccine rollout,” Johnson said in comments released by Downing Street on Sunday night to mark the latest lockdown easing. “Despite today’s easements, everyone must continue to stick to the rules, remember ‘hands, face, space,’ and come forward for a vaccine when called,” he added.
Policymakers are working toward a big moment on Easter Monday, when they will decide whether to give the green light to a further easing of restrictions, which would allow people to meet in pub gardens and go to the hairdresser from April 12.
They are also due to provide an update on when nonessential foreign travel will be allowed, and will say more about whether and how certificates proving people’s vaccination record or test status might be used.
“There is still more work to do on both [foreign travel and vaccine certification] in terms of getting to the stage of an update because obviously both of them have incredibly complex elements to them, and several unknowns,” according to one government official familiar with discussions. “It’s going to be a busy week,” they added.
Global travel challenge
While coronavirus infection and death rates have plummeted in the U.K. following a stringent lockdown and pacy vaccine rollout for the most vulnerable groups, ministers are increasingly concerned about rising infection rates across the Channel and the wider EU, where vaccinations have been rolled out at a slower pace.
“Clearly the situation on the Continent is worrying and we’re seeing rising cases. And it has been the case historically in previous waves that a couple of weeks or three weeks later it hits the U.K,” Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden told the BBC on Sunday, as he warned people needed to continue to abide by the remaining restrictions.
The U.K. government had previously ruled out nonessential foreign trips until at least May 17. But in a sign of renewed worry over the spread of the virus, a new law that comes into force this week could see anyone who tries to leave England before June 30 without “good reason” fined up to £5,000.
The government is under intense pressure from the travel industry to allow at least some form of international travel, with Heathrow Airport bosses pushing ministers to bring in a traffic-light system that could allow shorter quarantine periods with increased testing. The Sunday Times reported at the weekend that nonessential travel may not return until August. Dowden said the government was looking at “all the different options.”
Even more controversial are plans being looked at by Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove for a so-called COVID status certification, a form of documentation that could use testing or vaccine status to allow people greater freedom. A call for evidence is due to close on Monday.
While an official close to the discussion said no decision on the issue was expected, an update on “some of our thinking” would be set out in the week after Easter.
In a sign of just how sensitive the topic is, Johnson caused uproar when he suggested to a committee of MPs last week that the review was considering jab passports for places like pubs.
Influential backbench Tory MP Steve Baker warned Johnson had begun “to tread a dangerous path when he allowed a review” into the option.
Johnson later said it may not be feasible to implement coronavirus health certificates until everyone has been offered a vaccine, and that such a plan could also be based on whether individuals have developed antibodies after being infected with coronavirus, as well as recording vaccinations and negative tests.
POLITICO reported on Friday that Johnson’s government is also preparing to push ahead with mandatory coronavirus vaccinations for care home workers by the summer, in what could be a worldwide first.
Amid the big decisions on international travel and immunity certificates, Johnson will continue to look for a deal with European Union leaders threatening to block vaccine supplies.
The dispute over jabs manufactured at AstraZeneca’s Halix plant in the Netherlands remains unresolved after the European Commission threatened to block any shipment of vaccines to the U.K. because the British-Swedish pharmaceutical company has fallen short of its deliveries to the bloc.
While Dowden insisted the vaccination program was on track Sunday, ministers still face questions over the security of its vaccine supply lines.
For now, the government is optimistic its unlocking plan can continue. “Thanks to the work of the British people and the excellent vaccine rollout we are confident both in going ahead with the easing from tomorrow and the next stages,” the culture secretary said.
Still, after a stop-start year of lockdowns, there can be no guarantees. “Of course [the roadmap] could be delayed if the situation deteriorates,” Dowden added. “But at the moment we are on track.”
This article is part of POLITICO’s premium policy service: Pro Health Care. From drug pricing, EMA, vaccines, pharma and more, our specialized journalists keep you on top of the topics driving the health care policy agenda. Email [email protected] for a complimentary trial.