UK’s Johnson lays out road map for easing virus lockdown
London — U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Sunday outlined his government’s “conditional plan” for reopening British society in the coming months, including the possible return to school for some young children at the start of June, as he announced some easing of the coronavirus lockdown in England.
In a televised address to the nation, Johnson said this is “not the time, simply, to end the lockdown this week,” but that it was appropriate to encourage people with jobs that cannot be done from home to return to work.
He said it would be “madness” to loosen restrictions so much that a second spike in cases emerges. The U.K. has recorded as of Sunday almost 32,000 virus-related deaths, the most in Europe and the second-highest pandemic toll worldwide. Johnson said that without the lockdown, which has been in place since March 23, half a million people may have lost their lives.
“We must continue to control the virus and save lives,” the prime minister said from an office at 10 Downing Street. “And yet we must also recognize that this campaign against the virus has come at colossal cost to our way of life.”
The lockdown has reduced the transmission of the novel coronavirus in the community, but has come at a heavy economic cost. Johnson, who returned to work only two weeks ago following his hospitalization for COVID-19, has come under increasing pressure to relieve the pressure on the economy.
He said the government would proceed cautiously but that he was able to announce “the first careful steps” in relaxing the lockdown for England. Fuller details will be unveiled in Parliament on Monday.
He said people who can work from home should continue to do so but the ones who can’t, such as those in construction or manufacturing, “should be actively encouraged to go to work” starting this week. However, they should not commute by public transportation and should adhere to social distancing guidelines at work, Johnson said.
And starting Wednesday, the government will also allow people to take “unlimited amounts” of exercise outdoors instead of being limited to once a day, Johnson said. Members of the public also will be able to sunbathe, drive to destinations such as beaches, and play sports such as golf and tennis – but only with members of the same household.
The changes permit individuals to sit with a friend in a park provided they keep 2 meters apart, something prohibited during the lockdown. Johnson said fines for violations of the social distancing rules would be increased.
The devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, extended their lockdowns prior to Johnson’s speech and eased some restrictions, but less so than the steps the prime minister announced for England.
That prompted questions over the potential for big differences in daily life among the U.K.’s four constituent nations in the months ahead. Up until now, they have moved in lockstep on virus regulations.
Johnson was at odds earlier with the leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland after his government replaced its “Stay at Home” public health slogan with a new “Stay Alert” message, wording that raised concerns about the potential danger of mixed messaging. They said they would retain the “Stay at Home” message.
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said she didn’t know what the new advice meant and that she has asked the U.K. government not to promote what she considers to be a “vague and imprecise” message in Scotland.
Keir Starmer, the leader of the main opposition Labour Party, said he was worried about the four nations “pulling in different directions” and that Johnson failed to provide the necessary “clarity and consensus.”
Health experts also expressed concern about the new slogan.
Professor Til Wykes of the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King’s College London said the new slogan “will just be confusing, be open to misinterpretation and likely to increase risky behavior.”
Johnson also laid out what he called “the first sketch of a road map for reopening society” in the coming months, including the opening of shops and the possible return to school for some younger children as early as June 1.
He also expressed hope that segments of the hospitality industry, such as restaurants and cafes, and more public places could reopen a month later.
“Throughout this period of the next two months, we will be driven not by mere hope or economic necessity,” he said. “We are going to be driven by the science, the data and public health, and I must stress again that all of this is conditional, it all depends on a series of big ifs.”
He said the U.K. government was introducing a scale for measuring the threat from the virus. Johnson explained the COVID Alert Level will guide policy – the lower the level, the fewer the measures.
“We will be monitoring our progress locally, regionally, and nationally, and if there are outbreaks, if there are problems, we will not hesitate to put on the brakes,” he said.
Johnson also said it will “soon be the time” to require a quarantine period for airplane passengers coming into the U.K. There’s been speculation that the quarantine would be 14 days unless travelers are coming from Ireland. Anyone arriving from France will be exempt, Johnson’s office confirmed after a conversation between the prime minister and French President Emmanuel Macron.