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Photograph: Time Out

When will London reopen and what are the latest social distancing rules?

What you can and cannot do in the capital as London’s third lockdown eases, and all the info you need on London venues reopening

Written by
Laura Richards

Lockdown 3 – arguably the worst of all the lockdowns – is finally showing signs of ending. Not only is spring starting to arrive, but there’s also news of things slowly, steadily returning to ‘normal’. Covid rates in London have dropped 90 percent since the peak and the vaccination programme is well underway.

Today (February 22, 2021) Prime Minister Boris Johnson gave a speech laying out the most up-to-date roadmap for the future of the capital. The focus was on baby steps. You know: when can we go for a picnic? When will the rule of six return? And when can we all just go back to the pub? But there was also news about big stuff too: the end of social distancing! The rebirth of clubbing!

We know that you, just like us, are itching to enjoy the culture, nightlife, sights and sounds that a city like London can offer. Not only that, but you’re desperate to see friends and family again. So we’ve gathered up everything you need to know about how it’ll look as London comes out of lockdown. That includes what will happen at each step of ‘unlocking’ (as we near the final step of Phase Two) and when each aspect of the capital – from its hairdressers to its nightclubs – will open up again. 

Once again, the government is reopening things in four phases. The first comes on March 29, the second on April 12, third on May 17 and fourth after June 21. Johnson has added a caveat to the plan, which is that there are certain targets that we need to keep hitting in order for things to reopen. These include the pace of the vaccination programme, as well as infection rates and the rise of new variants. He said that he’d be leaving five weeks between each step to make sure that any surges caused by them could be traced and controlled. If so, we might pause opening up for a bit.

BUT fingers crossed that everything goes to plan. We’ll see you in the pub in May, if so.

Please note, things are changing quickly in London right now. We’ll aim to keep you updated on the latest developments as and when they happen. But also check our news coverage for breaking stories in London.

We’re currently in ‘Phase One’ of the 2021 response to coronavirus

But what the hell does that mean? First – back in January – we entered lockdown, with the government ordering UK residents to stay at home to contain the spread of coronavirus. This prolonged period included a lot of staring at the same four walls and has become affectionately known as ‘Phase One’. Now we’re seeing the rules around when we can and cannot leave the house slowly start to ease as we move through Phase Two.

Schools return on March 8

Parents: breathe a sigh of relief (and put the maths textbooks in a cupboard far, far away). You’re not teachers anymore. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has confirmed that the kids will be going back to school on March 8. Older students will have to undergo twice weekly Covid testing and teachers and families will be encouraged to get tested too. Universities are also expected to return on the same date. Goodbye learning stuff on Zoom. We hope we never have to meet you again.


You can actually sit down for a coffee with a mate you don’t live with on March 8 too

Remember in Lockdown 1 when Brockwell Park and Victoria Park were closed because of overcrowding and there were police with megaphones telling people off for doing yoga? Well, thank god that didn’t happen this time around. The rules of the winter 2021 lockdown were simple-ish: you could go outside for daily exercise with one person outside of your household but it had to be in your local neighbourhood, it couldn’t be in a private garden and it had to be for exercise. (Cue ‘meeting for a walk’ becoming London’s hottest activity.) Today Boris announced that that rule would be relaxing a little bit. Firstly, from March 8 you and bud would be allowed to meet without exercising – and to sit down for a snack and a coffee in the park while you’re at. 

And the fact that many public toilets remain closed has become a real contentious issue in the capital (here, we offer some map-based relief).   

From March 29 you can meet outside in groups of six – and you can even have a bloody picnic

As part of Phase One (and ahead of the Easter weekend) you’ll be able to meet up outside in groups of six people from different households or in a group formed of two households. You’ll be able to enjoy the luxury of sitting down, enjoying a picnic or some takeaway food and drinks. And you can do it in someone’s garden if you’d like. Just no going inside!


You should still work from home if you can continue to do so

Many London offices shut down last March and haven’t opened since. If you’re in this wfh crew you shouldn’t expect to be back wfo anytime soon. The government is doing a review into how long we have to maintain social distancing and wear facemasks for in order to keep the population safe from Covid, so if you’re counting down the days until you’re back eating Pret under strip lighting then the date they come up with is probably the one you’re waiting for. 

Outdoor sport’s returning in March, but expect to wait until April for the gym

If you count tennis, basketball, golf or Sunday kickabouts with pals as your main form of entertainment or exercise, you’re in luck. Organised team sports and outdoor sports facilities are back on the ‘things to do menu’ from March 29, also as part of Phase One. When it comes to indoor sports though? You’re going to have to wait a little while longer. You'll be back in the gym by April 12 (subject to delay). 


UK breaks are back on from April

While London’s been in lockdown, the rules on moving about have been very clear. Stay at home as much as you can. Don’t leave your local area. The road map eases us out of this stage a little bit at a time. From April 12, we’ll be allowed to visit places outside of our neighbourhoods for UK mini breaks in holiday lets. We’ll also be able to visit zoos, theme parks and drive-in cinemas.

Having said that, there are some very important things to consider on your trips. You have to stay in England. Wales and Scotland have different lockdown measures in play, so Londoners mustn’t drift across the borders without checking what the rules are.

Back in England, many rural areas are currently keen to deter visitors to avoid overcrowding, new spikes in the virus and strains on local health services.


Non-essential shops will also reopen

There’s certainly been some stretching of the term ‘essential shops’ this lockdown. The city’s seen a wave of new boutique groceries, natural wine stores and homeware shops that now also do a few pastries. But what you think about that won’t matter from April 12 when all shops will be allowed to reopen again – so long as they have social distancing measures in place. What does that mean? Well, new-look retail measures  include one-way systems and hand-sanitiser stations, with shopping hubs like Oxford Street and Covent Garden embracing new queueing systems and department stores like Selfridges limiting capacities.     

Non-essential outdoor markets will also be allowed to open. Expect their return to be staggered like last time, dependent on how easy it is to organise social distancing measures.) 


Fingers crossed for outdoor restaurants and beer gardens in April too

Outdoor hospitality will return in the spring month as part of Phase Two. Hope that will mark the reinstatement of the pedestrianised spaces that London played host to last summer. There’ll be no curfew and the ‘Scotch egg debate’ will be over – you can have a drink without food. 

Indoor restaurants and bars will arrive in mid-May

While London has seriously stepped up its takeaway and delivery game in lockdown, there’s no denying that it’s just not the same as dining out. And while you can get all the best craft beer, wine and pre-batched cocktails delivered to your door and takeaway pints now, too – dammit, we’d still rather be sharing a drink with friends than sinking jars in our PJs. 

But in mid May, the hospitality sector will hopefully be coming out of lockdown. This will have to happen as part of Phase Three with social distancing measures in place. Expect to have to book in advance, take part in Track and Trace systems and wear masks when you’re not eating and drinking.

Hotels, hostels and B&Bs will also open at the same time. 



And you’ll have had your hair done before then

Thank God that the government don’t expect us to return to London’s fine restaurants and bars without our hair and nails looking sparkling. They’ve scheduled the reopening of salons for April. That said, a word of warning not to forget that ‘close contact’ treatments might not be available until a little later so it’s unlikely you’ll be getting your eyebrows done before the summer. Honestly, devastating stuff.

What about cultural venues?

When we were coming out of Lockdown 1, art galleries were the first cultural venues in the city to reopen. Smaller galleries and auction houses managed to convince the government that they should fall into the ‘non-essential retail’ category, which saw them reopen under Phase Two. Then larger galleries came under Phase Three. If that remains the same we should expect them all open by April – however they weren’t mentioned in the PM’s speech.

Cinemas were part of Phase Four of reopening last time, arriving in July under strict social-distancing measures. Theatres were also part of that phase. This time around they’ve been promised sooner in the process, as part of Phase Three. They’ll be joined with concert halls and sports stadia – all opening with capacity limits.

When it comes to nightlife: going ‘out out’ might not be too far off in the distance for music lovers. The plan is for everything up to nightclubs to open after June 21, without capacity limits (and potentially with testing of attendees.) This would coincide with the legal limits on everything social being removed.



It’s maybe, MAYBE time to start thinking about a summer holiday

Health secretary, Matt Hancock, has said he is hopeful that trips abroad could return from June. A task force is looking into whether this is possible and will be providing an answer by April 12. Foreign holidays will come with restrictions put in place by other governments and in reaction to the progress of vaccination schemes around the world or the rise of new strains of Covid.

You should still avoid public transport if you can

People are still being advised not to use public transport unless it’s absolutely essential. If people cannot avoid the transport network while moving around London, they’re advised not to travel at peak times and to avoid the busiest stations while on their journey. Those travelling out of London will notice some changes too, with pre-booked seats required on trains and increased social-distancing measures in place across London stations. And, of course, it’s still compulsory to wear a form of face covering on public transport


You should still wear a mask in enclosed public spaces

It’s fair to say that official advice in the UK has been a bit wishy-washy when it comes to wearing masks – especially when other nations embraced the facial gear pretty early on. But it is now law for Londoners to adopt the fashion for any outings that would see them in an enclosed space – or any outdoor situation where a two-metre distance could prove tricky to uphold. That means wearing face masks in the supermarket and on public transport. As pubs, bars, shops and salons reopen, you should expect to keep wearing them in those venues too. 

Your ‘bubble’ still exists

A ‘bubble’ is (genuinely) the government’s term for how people living on their own can effectively join with another household as part of England’s easing of lockdown. Single people (and single parents with their children) are allowed to form a support bubble with one other chosen household to help ease loneliness. They’ll be able to spend time together indoors without abiding by the two-metre rules and are even allowed overnight stays at each other’s houses.

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