Healthy over-70s look likely to be released from stringent coronavirus social distancing measures, The Telegraph has learned.
Ministers are hoping to clarify the rules for pensioners amid criticism that the current guidance is confusing.
The move follows reports that people judged to be vulnerable could be shielded from normal life for up to 18 months or until a vaccine is found.
Former pensions minister Baroness Altmann warned that Britain faces “social unrest” if the over-70s are forced to endure a longer lockdown than younger generations. The Conservative peer said many older people would “risk going to prison rather than being forced to isolate at home”.
Boris Johnson is due to reveal his “road map” for “phase two” of the lockdown on Sunday, which is set to include primary schools reopening as early as June 1 and new guidelines for employees returning to work.
Denmark, Norway and Germany have all partially reopened schools, while Italy – which bore the brunt of the coronavirus pandemic when it first hit Europe – saw around 4.5 million people return to work on Monday.
At Monday’s Downing Street press conference it was announced that there had been 288 more coronavirus deaths – the smallest daily rise since March – but Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, said the reproduction ‘R’ value, showing the rate of virus infection, was still not low enough to lift the lockdown.
Experts say the ‘R’ value needs to remain consistently below one, and it is currently between 0.6 and one.
A Cabinet minister told The Telegraph: “I’d be very surprised if there is a tightening of the measures for over-70s. The whole thing is going to be based around consent rather than compulsion.”
A minister close to the discussions concerning elderly and vulnerable people revealed: “The all over-70s grouping is going to morph. There is a big difference between the 1.5 million ‘shielded’ people, known as extremely critically vulnerable, who have been sent a letter advising them to shield for 12 weeks, vulnerable people with pre-existing health conditions of any age, and healthy over-70s.
“This needs to be made clearer – you can’t just have a blanket over-70s group. That’s unsustainable. It’s not a static group.”
Pointing out that the over-70s make up nearly nine million of the UK’s population, the minister said: “There aren’t enough supermarket delivery slots to cater for that amount of people.
“What we are going to see is more self-selection and personal responsibility. People will self-select whether they are vulnerable or not. The over-70s are a very sensible group – by and large, they know if they should be staying indoors or not.”
The Cabinet minister added: “There has been a lot of over-interpreting of the advice, and people are going to have to start making judgments for themselves. So far it’s all advisory – we haven’t had a situation where the police have been checking the date of birth of elderly people in the supermarkets, and rightly so.
“I’d be very surprised if the advice gets any stricter for the over-70s.”
Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 committee of backbench Tory MPs, said Britain has its most healthy elderly generation ever and it would be “tragic” to extend lockdown measures for them on the basis of age.
“Why don’t we just give them the best information and let them limit their risk themselves?” he said.
In the original Government guidance, anyone over 70, regardless of their state of health, was advised to be “particularly stringent in following social distancing measures” and “strongly advised” against social mixing in the community and having friends and family to the house.
But on May 1, that guidance, dated March 30, was withdrawn and replaced with new advice which listed all over-70s as “clinically vulnerable”, regardless of their medical conditions.
This group is “strongly advised” to “take particular care to minimise contact with others outside your household” as people in it are at higher risk of contracting coronavirus. However, they can still go outside if it is deemed essential and have not been advised to “shield” themselves from all contact, as those in the “clinically extremely vulnerable” group have been told to do.
Yet Mr Hancock sparked confusion over the latest guidance by writing on Twitter that “the clinically vulnerable, who are advised to stay in lockdown for 12 weeks, emphatically DO NOT include all over-70s”.
Baroness Altmann called for “clarity” on the issue, saying the mixed messages were “confusing”, while best-selling author and former frontline doctor Adam Kay said: “I suspect the Health Secretary meant to say ‘Clinically extremely vulnerable’. I think it’s fair to say that the messaging is a little muddy.”
The Department of Health and Social Care confirmed that over 70s “are not included in the most at risk group (extremely clinically vulnerable), who have been told to isolate for 12 weeks”.
As well as reassessing the generational advice, a Government source said lockdown measures could start to be varied from region to region if certain cities or areas of the UK were seen to be experiencing a second spike of the virus. “It is one of the things we are looking at,” the source said.
Playgrounds and gyms are not expected to reopen in the “phase two” road map, despite pressure from MPs for them to do so.
Tory MPs have been urging ministers to find a way to reopen gyms and leisure centres, including introducing temperature testing. However Mr Johnson is thought to be reluctant to make the change even as he starts to open up the economy.
A senior Government source said: “Where people are using the same equipment, then you get into tricky points. Playgrounds and gyms, and outdoor gyms, will be the sort of things that will come in at a later point, because there’s an increased risk of infection.”
One MP said: “It would be fantastic to get people back into gyms and leisure centres, especially when exercise is so key to staying healthy during this time.
“One idea is to start temperature checking on the doors, in a similar vein to what has been proposed for airports and public transport once lockdown measures begin to lift.”
On Monday, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said the Government was reassessing the guidance for different age bands.
“Everybody has been asked to stay at home at the moment, whatever age you are,” the spokesman said. “Over-70s are classed as being in the clinically vulnerable group – they are not necessarily in the clinically extremely vulnerable group, which are those people who are shielding.
“Therefore the advice to them is to take particular care to minimise contact with others outside their household.”
Asked whether the over-70s would have different rules from other sections of the population, the spokesman added: “We know that, as you get older, there is a higher risk of coronavirus having a more serious impact. Complications and deaths are more common in the elderly, even those without pre-existing conditions.
“But as we look forward it is perfectly reasonable that we will look at how guidance will apply for different age bands, and we will continue to be guided by the science.”