LONDON — Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain said Monday that schools in England would reopen on March 8 and that people would be allowed to socialize outdoors starting on March 29, the tentative first steps in a long-awaited plan to ease a nationwide lockdown prompted by a highly contagious variant of the coronavirus.
Mr. Johnson’s “road map” was intended to give an exhausted country a path back to normalcy after a dire period in which infections skyrocketed and hospitals overflowed with patients. At the same time, Britain rolled out a remarkably successful vaccination program, injecting 17 million people with their first doses.
That milestone, combined with a decline in new cases and hospital admissions, paved the way for Mr. Johnson’s announcement. But the prime minister emphasized repeatedly that he planned to move slowly in reopening the economy, saying that he wanted this lockdown to be the last the nation had to endure.
Under the government’s plan, pubs, restaurants, retail shops and gyms in England will stay closed for at least another month — meaning that, as a practical matter, daily life will not change much for millions of people until the spring.
“We’re setting out on what I hope is a one-way journey to freedom,” Mr. Johnson said in a statement to the House of Commons. “This journey is made possible by the success of the vaccine program.”
The specific timetable, Mr. Johnson said, will hinge on four factors: the continued success of the vaccine rollout; evidence that vaccines are reducing hospital admissions and deaths; no new surge in cases that would tax the health service; and no sudden risk from new variants of the virus.
“At every stage,” the prime minister said, “our decisions will led by data, not dates.”
Mr. Johnson was scheduled to present the plan to the nation in an evening news conference, along with data that he said showed that the two main vaccines — from Pfizer and AstraZeneca — both reduced severe illness.
Mr. Johnson’s appearance in Parliament ended days of speculation about the government’s timetable. But it is likely to kindle a new round of debate about whether Mr. Johnson is easing restrictions fast enough.
With pubs and restaurants not allowed to offer indoor service until May, some members of Mr. Johnson’s Conservative Party are likely to revive their pressure campaign to lift the measures more quickly.
Mr. Johnson, however, appears determined to avoid a repeat of his messy reopening of the economy last May after the first phase of the pandemic.
Then, the government’s message was muddled — workers were urged to go back to their offices but avoid using public transportation — and some initiatives, like subsidizing restaurant meals to bolster the hospitality industry, looked reckless in hindsight.
Schools During Coronavirus
Updated Feb. 17, 2021
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Under Mr. Johnson’s plan, the current coronavirus restrictions would be lifted in four steps, with a gap of five weeks between steps. That way, the government would have four weeks to analyze the impact of each relaxation and another week’s notice of the changes to the public and businesses.
All the moves would be made throughout England, with no return to the regional differences in rules that applied last year, depending on local infection rates. The government warned that the dates specified are the earliest at which the restrictions would be lifted, and that the steps may happen later.
When students go back to school, they will be regularly tested for the virus while older pupils will be required to wear face masks. Those living in nursing homes will be allowed one regular visitor, but few other restrictions will be lifted.
Starting on March 29, up to six people would be allowed to meet outdoors, including in gardens. Outdoor sports will be permitted and though people will be urged to stay in their areas, they will not be urged to remain in their homes.
Then, no earlier than April 12, retail shops will reopen, along with hairdressers, beauty salons, gyms, museums and libraries, while people will be able to eat and drink outside in pub and restaurant gardens in small groups.
Starting on May 17, up to six people, and groups drawn from two households, will be able to meet indoors, including in pubs and restaurants. Hotels will also be able to reopen and spectators will be allowed into sporting events in limited numbers.
Restrictions on foreign travel could also be eased, though that will be addressed by one of several policy reviews being launched by the government. These will also focus on the possible use of vaccine passports to help open up the economy, and on guidance and rules on social distancing measures such as the use of face masks.