Easing out of lockdown needs to be done one step at a time

Lockdown is really tough for everyone but, in some ways, moving out of it will be even harder.

The process of lifting restrictions safely will be extremely complex, and there is no absolutely risk free way of doing it – every individual step we take will have implications for our efforts to suppress COVID-19.

For all our progress the virus still poses a threat to public health and it will continue to do so for some time to come.

However, I know we can’t live under lockdown forever. I am acutely aware that the harm caused, not just by the virus, but also by the measures we’ve taken so far to suppress it impact not only our physical health but on our mental wellbeing too. These restrictions have exacerbated loneliness and isolation, deepened inequalities and damaged the economy.

So we need to move forward – but we need to do so carefully and cautiously. As we slowly lift restrictions, we must rigorously monitor the spread of the virus, and ensure we don’t undo the progress we’ve worked so hard to achieve by allowing it to run out of control again.

I have said before that even as we return do some normality, life is still going to look different.

Catch ups with friends and family will not be exactly like they were before, our workplaces will have to adapt, and it will be a while before we can head to pubs or meet in big groups.

Easing out of lockdown needs to be done one step at a time.

But to be as transparent as possible on the way forward, we have published a four phase route map which details what we might be able to do, in what order and under what circumstances.

It is based firmly on evidence and the criteria set by the World Health Organisation, and it takes account of the experiences of other countries.

The route map outlines four phases beyond the current lockdown, which I hope will bring some improvement to wellbeing and quality of life, start to get our economy moving again, and steer us safely towards a new normality.

It covers nine key aspects of our lives – seeing friends and family; travel and getting around; education and childcare; work, business and the economy; shopping and leisure; sport and culture; public gatherings and special occasions; communities and public services; and health and social care.

It’s not set in stone – as we learn more about the virus we may have to move more steadily or we may be able to do so more quickly – but I hope we will be able to move to phase 1 this week.

Decisions will be taken carefully and openly, keeping the public informed at every stage. And as always, I encourage feedback on our proposals.

Regrettably, not everyone will be able to enjoy these new steps as we take them.

Not a day goes by where I don’t think of the implications for people who are shielding and the ask we are making of them to stay at home.

I can scarcely imagine how difficult these past few months have been and whilst these measures are in place for very good reasons, I appreciate it doesn’t make any of this easier for those in this category.

So to each and every person who is shielding – thank you for your understanding and your patience.

We will issue new guidance before the initial period of shielding ends on 18 June which will aim to increase your quality of life and your ability to make informed choices, while continuing to protect you as much as possible from the risks the virus poses.

Crucial to any return to a new way of life is our system to test, trace, isolate and support, or ‘Test and Protect’ as we are calling it.

It’s a well-established public health intervention which will involve testing people who have symptoms of COVID-19, identifying people they have been in close contact with and who are at risk of transmission of the virus, and asking them to self-isolate if test results are positive.

We will have a team of NHS ‘contact tracers’ to carry out this work, but we will all have a role to protect ourselves and others in following guidance on what to do if we have symptoms and self-isolating when advised to do so.

This helps to stop cases becoming clusters, clusters becoming outbreaks which could ultimately lead to uncontrolled spread and a return to lockdown restrictions.

Through all of this we must remain absolutely vigilant in following advice aimed at containing the virus.

That means handwashing, cough hygiene and physical distancing must continue, as well as wearing face coverings where physical distancing is difficult such as in shops and on public transport.

This route map is a crucial important step forward and each phase reached will be a sign of progress made.

Let’s continue to suppress the virus and restore a way of life that is as close to normal as possible.