BORIS Johnson hailed the easing of lockdown rules from today - as concerns grew that foreign holidays will not be allowed until August.
The first major relaxation of the restrictions introduced in England at the start of January will permit family reunions and outdoor sport.
From today, we are allowed to meet in public parks and private gardens in groups of six or two households, as the ‘stay at home’ order is finally scrapped.
Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said he hoped people would use the new freedoms to get fit, as he reminded adults they should be doing two-and-a-half hours of exercise every week. As part of today’s changes, some sports facilities - such as tennis and basketball courts and outdoor swimming pools - can open, while formally organised outdoor sports can also restart.
But Mr Dowden warned that the relaxation of lockdown did not mean a ‘complete free-for-all’ and hinted that breaking the rules could delay the time when foreign holidays can return.
The Prime Minister urged everyone to ‘remain cautious’ and stick to the rules, amid worries in Government that people may start meeting indoors, even though that is not allowed until May.
‘I know how much people have missed the camaraderie and competition of organised sport, and how difficult it has been to restrict physical activities - especially for children,’ Mr Johnson said.
‘So as teams return to outdoor pitches, courts, parks and fields, I hope today will kick-start a great British summer of sport, with people of all ages reunited with team-mates, and able to resume the activities they love.
‘I know many will welcome the increased social contact, with groups of six or two households now also able to meet outdoors.
‘But we must remain cautious, with cases rising across Europe and new variants threatening our vaccine rollout.
‘Despite today’s easements, everyone must continue to stick to the rules - remember hands, face, space - and come forward for a vaccine when called.’
Mr Dowden added: ‘Clearly the situation on the Continent is worrying and we’re seeing rising cases. And it has been the case historically in previous waves that a couple of weeks or three weeks later it hits the UK.
‘Now this time round, because of the progress with the vaccine, I think we can have more confidence that it won’t hit us.
‘But we do have to be vigilant. That’s why people still need to abide by the rules after Monday. This isn’t a complete free-for-all, this is limited easing, which we will then test the impact of over the following four weeks.’
Senior Government figures have warned that foreign holidays are unlikely to get the go-ahead until August. Officials cautioned that the public should prepare for the fact that a review, due to report on April 12, will not lead to an early lifting of the ban.
From today there is a fine of up to £5,000 for anyone who tries to leave England before June 30 without good reason.
While the PM’s road map suggests foreign holidays could restart from May 17, a source told the Sunday Times that now seemed ‘very optimistic’, adding: ‘August is looking like the most likely moment.’
Even when the blanket ban on foreign holidays is lifted, people may only be able to travel easily to countries with good vaccination rates and no known mutations of the virus.
Those seeking to visit France and other parts of Europe, where the virus is rampant, may have to quarantine on return, making it impractical for many.
A source said last night that, despite recent speculation, there was no imminent prospect of France being added on the UK’s ‘red list’ of countries requiring hotel quarantine on arrival.
Mr Dowden said: ‘I know everyone desperately wants to get their summer sun, particularly after this dreadful winter that we’ve had, but we have to do it in a safe way. And we have to be mindful, particularly, of the risk of new variants spreading.’
He urged people to consider the ‘fantastic opportunity to book breaks here in the UK’.
He also urged children to follow the chief medical officer’s guidance and aim for at least 60 minutes of physical activity a day - and for adults, at least two and a half hours a week.
Exercise and outdoor sports are well documented in helping reduce the risk of major illnesses - such as heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and cancer - by up to 50 per cent and lower risk of early death by up to 30 per cent.
Mr Dowden said: ‘I urge everyone to get their trainers on, get outside and enjoy all of the positive benefits sport can bring.
‘Sport and physical activity will be at the heart of our national recovery and today marks a really important step forward.’
An Office for Health Promotion will be unveiled today in a bid to combat obesity, improve poor mental health and promote physical activity.
Mr Johnson said its launch will be ‘crucial in tackling the causes, not just the symptoms’ of ill-health in England. It will report jointly to the Health Secretary and the chief medical officer.