Explained - how and when could lockdown end?
- Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown
A "roadmap" out of the current national coronavirus lockdown is widely expected to be announced on Monday - but how and when will the current restrictions end?
Falling coronavirus infection rates and rapidly rising numbers of people getting the Covid-19 vaccine have led some to call for the rules to be relaxed, to allow children the resume normal schooling and to enable businesses to recover from crippling effects of the pandemic.
Many hope normal life will return by the summer - but several experts have warned that lifting restrictions too soon could have negative consequences.
Despite an announcement being imminent, when and how we emerge from lockdown still remains unclear. So, what do we know so far?
Where are we now?
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Coronavirus infections, hospitalisations and deaths peaked sharply in January, with Ipswich and Colchester hospitals chief executive Nick Hulme warning that intensive care was the busiest it had ever been.
Lockdown restrictions were brought in for a minimum of six weeks at the start of the year, with ministers warning they could go on longer to save lives and stop the NHS being overwhelmed.
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But in recent weeks, the spread of the virus appears to have slowed.
Latest government data shows every district in Suffolk currently has a coronavirus infection rate of below 100 cases per 100,000 people.
Figures released by NHS England on Thursday also revealed East Suffolk and North Essex NHS Foundation Trust (ESNEFT), which manages Ipswich and Colchester hospitals, was treating 180 Covid-19 patients on Tuesday.
This number has fallen from 251 a week prior.
West Suffolk Hospital in Bury St Edmunds had 26 patients earlier this week, down from 47.
Figures out on Thursday reveal 34% - more than a third - of those aged 16 and over in the Suffolk and north east Essex NHS area had their first dose of the life-saving vaccine as of Valentine's Day.
When will the lockdown exit strategy be revealed?
A lockdown exit roadmap is set to be published in the next week, with prime minister Boris Johnson due to make an announcement on Monday.
“We will be setting out in as much detail as we can about where we see the dates, what the timetable could be, the earliest dates by which we want to do what - you remember what we did last year - setting out a route map, we’ll do that again,” he said.
The current lockdown legislation expires on March 31. This means that if lockdown isn't eased by this point, then further legislation will be needed to keep restrictions in place.
How much could lockdown measures ease?
Ministers have said they “will look at the data in the round” when it comes to decisions on easing restrictions, while Mr Johnson has said he will look at "data not dates" and ease restrictions "cautiously".
However, it is widely thought that an exit out of lockdown will be phased rather than an immediate lifting of all restrictions.
In the first lockdown, limitations on things such as outdoor exercise were among the first things to be lifted, while greater social mixing outdoors and in people's homes did not come until later.
Even then, it was limited to the "rule of six".
When shops and pubs did reopen several weeks after the start of the first lockdown, they were only allowed to do so with strict Covid-secure measures in place.
Mr Johnson has already said he hopes schools will start to reopen to all pupils from March 8, with ministers saying that non-essential shops and pubs would follow later.
However, it is thought unlikely that even schools will reopen all in one go - with education leaders in Suffolk calling for a phased return of pupils.
What does Suffolk think about easing lockdown?
There are mixed views of when and how the lockdown should be eased in Suffolk.
Ipswich MP Tom Hunt was one of 63 Conservative party members to sign a letter calling for Mr Johnson to lift all Covid restrictions by the end of April.
"I do not think reopening schools on March 8, when we have vaccinated everyone in the top four priority groups, is being radical or rash," he said.
"I see that as being a measured and proportionate decision."
He said restrictions have been necessary and that lockdowns have played key roles in restraining the virus - but that they are ultimately having a very negative effect on people's mental health and livelihoods.
Central Suffolk and North Ipswich MP Dr Dan Poulter said he was pleased to hear the number of Covid-19 patients had fallen recently - but warned now was not the time to lift restrictions.
He said: "The news that the number of patients with Covid in both Ipswich and Colchester hospitals has fallen over the last week is very encouraging, but that said, there still remains a long way to go.
"We have come such a long way in the fight against coronavirus, particularly with the successful rollout of the vaccination programme, but if we were to relax restrictions too soon, we would very quickly find ourselves back at square one with infection rates rising again, alongside increased hospital admissions and deaths.
"Current restrictions will need to remain in place for several weeks to come."