Britons started to cautiously return to the office on public transport today as the coronavirus lockdown began to be relaxed – with some saying how there was a ‘sudden feel of some kind of normality’ in London.
But there was no suggestion of a sudden rush back to the office, with TomTom traffic data showing rush-hour congestion in the capital was at 50 per cent this morning, well below 66 per cent at the same time last week.
Today’s figure taken in the 8am to 9am period was also down on 53 per cent recorded at the same time last Friday, and down on the 2019 average of 63 per cent, but roughly in line with the 2020 average of 49 per cent.
One commuter told how it ‘feels really good’ to be heading back into work while a second who was getting a train in from Kent said they were ‘so ready for this’ having been on flexible furlough since before Christmas.
The Government’s ‘stay at home’ order ended today, with messaging now moving to ‘stay local’, but people are still being asked to continue to work from home where possible and most overseas travel remains banned.
Among those returning to work today was Twitter user Holly from Folkestone in Kent, who tweeted a picture shortly before 9am of a train departure board, showing a service heading towards London St Pancras.
She wrote: ‘Back to work full time today after being on flexi furlough since before Christmas! I am sooooo ready for this. Wasn’t prepared for the coffee shop to not be open though #happymonday #backtowork #mondaymood.’
Another commuter pleased to be back in was Jonathan Sharrock, of Crawley, West Sussex, who tweeted a picture of a London bus and said: ‘Excited to be going #backtowork #backtotheoffice this morning. Feels really good.’
How will lockdown be eased in Britain by June?
Step One Part One: March 8
From March 8, all pupils and students returned to schools and colleges across England.
So-called wrap-around childcare was also allowed to resume, paving the way for after and before school clubs to reopen.
People were allowed to meet one other person outside for recreation, for example, to have a picnic or to meet for coffee.
Care home residents were be able to have one regular named visitor.
The Government’s stay at home order remained in place, with travel for non-essential purposes still banned.
Step One Part Two: March 29 (TODAY)
From today, outdoor gatherings of up to six people or a larger group from up to two households are allowed. These gatherings are allowed to happen in private gardens.
Outdoor sports like tennis and basketball are now allowed to reopen and people are also able to take part in formally organised outdoor sports.
The Government’s stay at home guidance has ended and replaced by ministers encouraging people to ‘stay local’.
People are still being told to work from home wherever possible while international travel is still banned unless it is for essential purposes.
Step Two: April 12
Non-essential retail will be allowed to reopen as well as personal care premises like hairdressers, barbers and nail salons.
Public buildings like libraries, museums and art galleries will be allowed to welcome back customers.
Meanwhile, hospitality venues and outdoor attractions like theme parks will be given the green light to reopen in some form.
However, there will still be rules on household mixing: Essentially any activity which involves being indoors will be restricted to members of the same household.
Gyms and swimming pools will also reopen from April 12 but only on the basis that people go on their own or with their own household.
Pubs and restaurants will be able to reopen but at this point they will only be able to have customers outdoors.
The Government will not be bringing back the old requirement for people to order a substantial meal with alcohol while the old 10pm curfew will be ditched.
All customers at hospitality venues will also have to be seated when they order food or drink, with ordering at the bar prohibited.
Campsites and holiday lets where indoor facilities are not shared with other households can also reopen but trips must be restricted a single household.
Funerals will be allowed to continue with up to 30 people, while the rules on wedding receptions will be eased to allow the number of guests to increase from six to 15.
Step Three: May 17
The two household and rule of six requirements for outdoor gatherings will be ditched but gatherings of more than 30 people in places like parks will still be banned.
Crucially, mixing indoors will be allowed again. The rule of six or a larger group from up to two households will be allowed to meet.
However, this will be kept under review by ministers to see if rules could be relaxed still further.
This is also the point at which pubs and restaurants and other hospitality venues will be able to open indoors, with the rule of six and two household limit in place. But groups meeting outdoors at pubs will be allowed to be bigger.
Entertainment venues like cinemas and children’s play areas will be able to reopen, as will hotels and B&Bs. Indoor adult sports groups and exercise classes can also reopen.
Changes will also be made to sporting and performance events in indoor venues with a capacity of 1,000 people or half full.
Step Four: June 21
All legal restrictions on social contact are due to be removed.
And father-of-two Steve Jones, from London, tweeted: ‘Sudden feel of some kind of normality in the City today as a lot people out and about and on the Tube.’
Last week it was revealed Nationwide had given its 13,000 office workers the choice of deciding where they want to work in order to give them more control over their lives under a huge work from home plan.
The lending giant said it would put office staff in control of deciding where they are based according to their job once Covid-19 restrictions end, after more than half – 57 per cent – said they wanted to work from home full-time. More than a third – 36 per cent – said they preferred a mix of home and office-based work.
Under the plan, Nationwide is leaving three offices in Swindon, with 3,000 staff either moving to the nearby HQ, working from home, or mixing the two. All three offices are based just outside Swindon town centre, in Aspect Park and Windmill Business Park.
Other UK staff may be able to work from their local High Street branch if they prefer, rather than travel to offices.
Also last week the London Chamber of Commerce said a study revealed that almost two-thirds of employers have allowed staff to work from home at least two days a week as a result of the pandemic.
Just over half of respondents said they will continue remote working in some form each week when the pandemic is over.
Companies across the UK are looking at how to tackle the issue of remote versus office working once lockdown ends, with many backing a hybrid model.
The work from home initiative has also seen footfall in the country’s town and city centres drop dramatically.
Office for National Statistics data shows that people who worked exclusively from home decreased in the week ending March 14 by six percentage points from the previous week, to 30 per cent.
The number of people who travelled to work – either exclusively or in combination with working from home – increased by five percentage points from the previous week, to 53 per cent.
The High Street has been hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic as people were told to stay inside for several national lockdowns.
Last month analysis from the Centre for Retail Research (CRR) showed 27,096 jobs have been shed and 1,023 stores have been earmarked for closure so far in 2021.
Earlier this year, economists KPMG estimated that even after lockdown restrictions are lifted, shopper numbers could be a third below pre-pandemic levels as fewer people travel to work – and ecommerce booms.
Businesses based at Canary Wharf and in the City of London have said they will follow Government guidance in deciding when to send staff back to the office.
Some, including JP Morgan and HSBC, have suggested they may move to a hybrid model of working – a combination of working from home and the office – as the Covid restrictions are eased.
Canary Wharf-based KPMG said the ‘vast majority’ will continue to work from home at this stage.
It comes as people across England began taking advantage of the relaxation of lockdown measures as outdoor gatherings and sport events resumed.
Groups of up to six, or two households, can socialise in parks and gardens once more, while outdoor sports facilities can reopen after the stay-at-home order ended today.
A group of golfers greeted the easing of coronavirus restrictions by hitting the fairways at just after midnight.
Seven teams used glow-in-the-dark balls and floodlit greens at the Morley Hayes Golf Club, near Derby, with their opening drives coming at 12.01am.
Swimmers returned to outdoor pools and those taking advantage of the relaxation in the lockdown will enjoy balmy weather across parts of England, with temperatures in parts of South East England rising to 75F (24C) by tomorrow.
Glenn Earlam, chief executive of gym chain David Lloyd, which reopened outdoor facilities at 79 of its clubs in England, said people were ‘just desperate to get out of their houses and go and do something different’.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme there were ‘big marquees outside the clubs in the grounds and the sides of those marquees will be open to let the air come through, but you’ll be covered in case it chucks it down with rain’.
English Heritage was also reopening some of its outdoor spaces include the grounds of Dover Castle in Kent, the Battle of Hastings site in East Sussex, Whitby Abbey in North Yorkshire, and the Osborne House site on the Isle of Wight.
After months of being told to stay at home, a spokesman said people were ‘desperate to get back to their local sites after what has been a very long winter for many and get that lift that they need from visiting some spectacular locations’.
Boris Johnson stressed that ‘we must remain cautious, with cases rising across Europe and new variants threatening our vaccine rollout’ as the latest step on his road map out of lockdown was reached.
There was no suggestion of a sudden rush back to the office, with TomTom traffic data showing rush-hour congestion in the capital was at 50 per cent this morning, well below 66 per cent at the same time last week
Heavy traffic on the A40 at Perivale in West London this morning on the day that some lockdown restrictions are eased
Traffic builds up on the A102 at Greenwich in South East London this morning as the rule of six is re-introduced outside
Cars and vans queue on the A3 Kingston Bypass heading into London this morning as the ‘stay at home’ rule ends
‘Despite today’s easements, everyone must continue to stick to the rules, remember hands, face, space, and come forward for a vaccine when called,’ the Prime Minister added.
People should be able to hug when Covid case numbers are ‘very low’
People should be able to hug again when case numbers are ‘very, very low’, a former government adviser has said.
Professor Sir Mark Walport, former chief scientific adviser to the Government, said there are still around 5,000 cases a day in the UK. And that while most of the vulnerable population are now protected, there are still 37 million people who have not been immunised.
But he said more is being learned about vaccines each day – including evidence on whether they can help stop the spread of the virus. Meanwhile, the ‘hands, face, space, fresh air’ slogan serves as a reminder to people not to ‘sneak into the house’ as restrictions ease, he added.
Asked about when people could hug again, he told Times Radio: ‘I think that when the evidence shows that the case number is really, really low indeed, that’s the point, so some degree of caution makes sense. We’re also learning more about the effectiveness of the vaccine every day at the moment – as more and more people get the vaccine then we will learn from the numbers.’
When asked what he would consider to be ‘very, very low indeed’, he said: ‘Well, how long is a piece of string?
‘As I say, it’s significantly lower than we’ve got at the moment, you know 5,000 cases a day is roughly where we were at the end of September, and certainly if this was on an upward trajectory we would be pretty worried at the sorts of numbers. Somewhere around 0.3% to 0.4% of the population across the UK on any day being infected – that’s the prevalence of the infection.’
But asked about hugs between grandparents and grandchildren on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, he added: ‘Be very cautious is the answer. The transmission [of the virus] outdoors is much less, but it is actually proximity at the end of the day – that is the important issue in transmission from one person to another. And prolonged close proximity outside carries its own risks. So people are going to have to exercise their judgment, but hopefully in a cautious way.’
Mr Johnson, who will hold a press conference later on Monday, said that as vaccines were rolled out ‘it’s vital that we don’t overdo it and risk all the progress we’ve made’.
Professor Sir Mark Walport, a member of the Sage advisory panel and former chief scientific adviser, said that there is ‘good reason to be cautious’ as restrictions are eased, with concerns about mounting cases on the continent.
He told Times Radio: ‘Just across the Channel we are seeing many European countries well into a third wave of infection.
‘The average number of cases per day is about 5,000 in the UK – and is rather persistently stuck there at the moment – in France the average number of cases is nearly 37,000 cases a day.
‘The risk of the moment is that the South African variant becomes more prevalent, as it is in some parts of Europe.’
Sports minister Nigel Huddleston said the easing of measures amounted to ‘cautious baby steps’ out of lockdown and warned the police would intervene if people breached the rules.
He told Sky News: ‘The vast majority of people absolutely stick to the rules and actually there’s a fair bit of self-policing that goes on as well.
‘But indeed if there are breaches, then the police can intervene and fine and they’ll continue to do so where that’s the case, but the message very clearly and hence the new message today actually is making sure that it’s very much about outdoors and open space.’
Football and cricket pitches, tennis and basketball courts, outdoor swimming pools, golf courses and sailing clubs are now free to reopen after months of being shuttered.
Organised team sports can also resume outdoors, meaning grassroots competitions can take place ahead of the Easter break without the need for social distancing.
Restrictions were eased as official figures showed more than 30 million people in the UK have received a first vaccine dose, accounting for about 57 per cent of all adults.
A new slogan was also unveiled to stress the importance of ventilation in reducing the spread of the virus: ‘Hands, Face, Space and Fresh Air.’
A public information campaign warns against the dangers of gathering indoors, with a psychologist giving advice on how to deal with friends and family who suggest breaking the rules, saying people may need to be ‘firm’ and give ‘gentle reminders’ about distancing.
In Wales, the ‘stay local’ order ended on Saturday and people were allowed to stay in self-contained holiday accommodation.
Commuters walk along the platform at Canning Town Underground station on the Jubilee Line this morning
Passengers wait for the doors to close on board a Jubilee line train at Canning Town Underground station this morning
The stay home order in Scotland is to end on Friday, while in Northern Ireland up to six people, or two households, will be able to meet outdoors from Thursday.
It is the second major easing of England’s lockdown imposed in early January, with schools having been reopened to all pupils on March 8.
While greater outdoor freedoms are now permitted, the Government is still advising people to work from home where possible and minimise the number of journeys they take.
The next step in the road map to easing England’s lockdown is April 12, which is earmarked for non-essential shops to reopen and for outdoor hospitality, including pubs and restaurants.