Boris Johnson said he hopes to emerge from a 'wretched year' in hard-hit Britain. AFP/Alastair Grant
LONDON - British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday set out a four-step plan to ease coronavirus restrictions, expressing a hope that life could get back to normal by the end of June.
In a statement to parliament, he outlined a "gradual and cautious" approach to lifting curbs in England, starting with the return of students to schools from 8 March, and non-essential retail from 12 April.
Some fans could be able to attend sporting fixtures from 17 May while all social distancing restrictions could be removed from 21 June, all subject to change and depending on scientific data.
The announcement is the first big step towards restoring normal life, nearly a year after Johnson imposed the first of three stay-at-home orders that have devastated the country and its economy.
Johnson told MPs that with a mass vaccination programme across the country easing pressure on overstretched hospitals, "the end really is in sight".
"A wretched year will give way to a spring and summer that will be very different and incomparably better than the picture we see around us today," he added.
The Conservative prime minister, who was accused of acting too late and relaxing curbs too early last year, called the plan "cautious but irreversible" to ensure no more lockdowns.
Britain is one of the countries hardest-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, with more than 120,000 deaths.
It was the first nation to begin a mass vaccination campaign in December, but surging case numbers forced a return to lockdown and shut schools in early January after an easing of curbs over Christmas.
More than 17 million people have now received at least a first vaccine dose -- one-third of the UK's adult population.
Case numbers are falling again and early evidence suggests the vaccinations are reducing serious illness, after some intensive-care units were overrun last month and queues of ambulances formed outside hospitals, unable to transfer their patients.
Johnson said the planned relaxations would be uniform across England, after regionalised tiers were put in place last year, but stressed that further progress would hinge on factors such as any new Covid variants.
That, and proof that the National Health Service is not facing any more "unsustainable pressure", offer Johnson some flexibility against pressure from Conservative backbenchers who are pressing for a cast-iron timeline to normality by the summer.
The government laid out its plans in a 68-page document, which said the five-week intervals between the four stages were designed to allow for assessment of the relaxation measures.
Johnson stressed the lifting of curbs would be led by data, not dates. The four tests involve study of the progress of the vaccine rollout, pressure on hospitals, infection rates and the emergence of any new coronavirus variants.