Zoos and safari parks will be allowed to reopen next week, in the latest moves to relax coronavirus lockdown rules being announced by Boris Johnson.
Bowing to pressure from MPs, animal-lovers and conservationists – including his own father Stanley – the prime minister will declare that zoos can reopen from next Monday, 15 June.
Outdoor attractions where people stay in their cars, such as safari parks and drive-in cinemas, will also be allowed to reopen from Monday, given the low risk of coronavirus transmission.
In an expected announcement of the latest easing of lockdown rules at Wednesday’s daily Downing Street news conference, Mr Johnson will stress that reopening will be subject to appropriate social distancing measures being in place.
And, on the advice of scientific and medical experts, indoor attractions at zoos such as reptile houses will have to remain closed and cafes will only be open for takeaway food and drinks.
“People are continuing to make huge sacrifices to reduce the spread of coronavirus and avoid a second spike,” a Downing Street official said ahead of the prime minister’s announcement.
“But we know it is tough and where we can safely open up more attractions, and it is supported by the science, we will do so.
“This is by necessity a careful process, but we hope the reopening of safari parks and zoos will help provide families with more options to spend time outdoors, while supporting the industry caring for these incredible animals.”
Mr Johnson’s announcement comes ahead of a House of Commons debate on Thursday in which MPs had planned to warn that zoos would close permanently and animals would have to be put down unless the government allowed them to reopen.
And pleading for their reopening in The Sun newspaper this week, Mr Johnson’s father, who is president of the Gorilla Organisation, wrote: “A good zoo not only looks after the welfare of animals, it also makes a vital contribution to conservation.”
Chester Zoo – praised by the Health Secretary Matt Hancock last week as “close to my heart, coming from Chester myself” – had warned that it was “at risk of extinction” and could end the year with debts of £24m.
Welcoming the prime minister’s announcement, City of Chester MP Chris Matheson told Sky News: “It’s a real relief obviously for everyone at Chester Zoo and they are now going to put into place a plan to reopen within the next three days so that they’re ready on Monday morning.
“They’re going to have to regulate the number of visitors who are coming in to the zoo, regulate the flows of visitors around.
“Some of the attractions and exhibits inside will be closed, but they’ve got a detailed plan in place and I’m sure that they will be able to meet the standards required.
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Edward Perry, Managing Director of Knowsley Safari, told Sky News: “Reopening safaris and zoos on 15th June is very good news, but we feel it should have been sooner.
“Knowsley Safari has been ready for the past week to safely open to the public and we still can’t understand why it’s been ok for people to jump in their cars to go and get Big Macs, but not to come and see our big cats.
“After being shut for such a long period, every day really does count in terms of ticket sales and generating much needed revenue to care for over 700 animals.”
The announcement on zoos follows confirmation by Business Secretary Alok Sharma that non-essential shops in England will be allowed to reopen from Monday if they have completed a COVID-19 risk assessment and can implement social distancing measures.
But pubs, restaurants and hairdressers will remain shut until 4 July at the earliest and Mr Sharma refused to reveal when the two-metre rule on social distancing might be relaxed, simply saying it was being kept under review.