The coronavirus lockdown will not end yet, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Sunday, urging people to “stay alert” to the risks as he outlined plans to begin slowly easing measures that have closed much of the economy for seven weeks.
While his directions were for England, the government wants the United Kingdom’s other nations to take the same approach. But there were immediate divisions, with the leaders of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland saying they were sticking with the existing “stay-at-home” message.
In a televised address, Johnson announced a limited easing of restrictions, including allowing people to exercise outside more often and encouraging some people to return to work.
“This is not the time simply to end the lockdown,” he said. “Instead we are taking the first careful steps to modify our measures.”
The government has faced criticism over its handling of the pandemic and Johnson is wary of taking the brakes off too soon. Britain‘s coronavirus death toll – 31,855 – is the second highest in the world, behind the United States.
With both the death rate and hospital admissions falling, it would be “madness” to allow a second spike in infections, he said.
But the decision to replace the government’s “stay-at-home” slogan, drummed into the public for weeks, was criticised by opposition parties who called the new “stay alert” message ambiguous.
Johnson said people should continue to work from home if they could, but those who cannot, such people working in construction and manufacturing, should be “actively encouraged to go to work”.
From Wednesday, people will be allowed to take unlimited amounts of outdoor exercise, he said, and can sit in the sun in their local park, drive to other destinations, and play sports with members of their own household.
Until now, people have been told only to exercise outdoors once a day and do so locally. Social distancing rules must still be obeyed, Johnson said, adding that fines would be increased for those who break them.
Johnson said he would set out further details to parliament on Monday, when a “roadmap” document will be published.
But opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer said Johnson had raised more questions than he had answered and there was now the prospect of different parts of the United Kingdom pulling in different directions.
“What the country wanted tonight was clarity and consensus, but we haven’t got either of those,” he said in a statement.
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the only modification she was making to lockdown measures was to allow people to exercise more.
“(That) is the only change that the Scottish government judges that it is safe to make right now without risking a rapid resurgence of the virus,” she told a news conference, adding she had asked the UK government not to use its “stay alert” advertising campaign in Scotland.
Britain‘s economy – the world’s fifth largest – has been hammered by the pandemic and the lockdown measures.
Business groups welcomed Johnson’s statement but said companies would need more advice on how to get people back to work safely.
The government has faced steady questions from Labour and others on why the country was not locked down earlier, why it has struggled to deliver mass testing and why there have been shortages of protective equipment for medics and care workers.
Johnson himself was critically ill with COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus, last month.
The Sunday Times reported scientific advisers had told the government that deaths could exceed 100,000 by the end of the year if lockdown measures are relaxed too fast. As of Sunday, Britain had reported some 219,183 confirmed infections.
Johnson detailed an alert system ranging from ‘green’ level 1, to ‘red’ level 5, to allow the government to flag risks in different parts of England and to adapt restrictions where necessary. He said the country was on level 4 and could begin to move to level 3.
At the earliest by June 1, the government may be able to begin the phased reopening of shops and get some younger pupils back into schools, he said, adding by July at the earliest, there could be an opening of some of the hospitality industry and other public places if they enforce social distancing.
Britain will soon also begin to quarantine people arriving into the country by air, Johnson said.
“Throughout this period of the next two months we will be driven not by mere hope or economic necessity. We are going to be driven by the science, the data and public health,” he said.
“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.”
REACTIONS TO PM’s TELEVISED STATEMENT
CAROLYN FAIRBAIRN, DIRECTOR GENERAL OF THE CBI, BRITAIN’S BIGGEST BUSINESS LOBBY GROUP:
“Today marks the first glimmer of light for our faltering economy. A phased and careful return to work is the only way to protect jobs and pay for future public services. The prime minister has set out the first steps for how this can happen.”
“Businesses are keen to open and get our economy back on its feet. But they also know putting health first is the only sustainable route to economic recovery. The message of continued vigilance is right.”
ADAM MARSHALL, DIRECTOR GENERAL OF THE BRITISH CHAMBERS OF COMMERCE:
“Businesses will need to see detailed plans for the phased easing of restrictions, coordinated with all nations across the UK and supported by clear guidance. It is imperative that companies have detailed advice on what will need to change in the workplace, including clarity on the use of PPE.”
“Firms will also need to know that government support schemes, which have helped save millions of jobs in recent weeks, will continue for as long as they are needed so that they can plan ahead with confidence.”
JONATHAN GELDART, DIRECTOR GENERAL OF THE INSTITUTE OF DIRECTORS:
“As the Government begins to ask more people to return to work, it’s vital that the guidance is clear so that companies can plan how to return safely. As people with ultimate legal responsibility, directors need to have confidence that it’s safe, and that if they act responsibly they won’t be at undue risk. Businesses should consult with their people to put in place robust policies, which in many cases might not be an overnight process.”
KEIR STARMER, OPPOSITION LABOUR PARTY LEADER:
“This statement raises more questions than it answers, and we see the prospect of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland pulling in different directions.”
“The prime minister appears to be effectively telling millions of people to go back to work without a clear plan for safety or clear guidance as to how to get there without using public transport.”
“What the country wanted tonight was clarity and consensus, but we haven’t got either of those.”
ED DAVEY, ACTING LEADER OF THE LIBERAL DEMOCRATS:
“People across the UK have made enormous personal sacrifices to slow the spread of COVID-19, protect others and protect our NHS and care services. Millions of people have put their lives on hold, are in isolation and face losing their livelihoods.”
“So I don’t understand why the government has changed its messaging at this critical stage. It risks what people have fought so hard for. The prime minister has not provided the country with any evidence or justification for this change. Instead, he risks creating more confusion than clarity by badly communicating his government’s plans.”
SADIQ KHAN, MAYOR OF LONDON:
“I urge the government to continue to work with employers, employees and trades unions to design a proper plan for how we can keep everyone safe as they return to work.”
“All Londoners must continue to abide by the rules, and stay home as much as possible, so that we can continue to save lives and protect the NHS (National Health Service).”
THE CONFEDERATION OF PASSENGER TRANSPORT, THE TRADE BODY FOR BUS AND COACH OPERATORS ACROSS BRITAIN:
“Buses are central to the economic and social recovery of the country and will also be vital in maintaining the cleaner air and reduced congestion we have seen over the last few weeks.”
“Bus operators will now be working with government and local authorities on a joint strategy to provide a more comprehensive network that will allow people get back to work safely. To help deliver this it will be important that when travelling people follow instructions on the availability of seats and when buses are full.”
PADDY LILLIS, GENERAL SECRETARY OF THE SHOPWORKERS’ TRADE UNION USDAW:
“We have emphasised safety first in all the discussions we’ve had with the Government. Non-food retail should only start trading again when expert public health advice agrees, but even then we must have a guarantee that the right policies and practices are in place to make workplaces safe.”
“We cannot afford to cut any corners. The last few weeks have laid bare the terrible damage this virus can wreak.”
EMMA MCCLARKIN, CHIEF EXECUTIVE OF THE BRITISH BEER AND PUB ASSOCIATION:
“The industry was looking for a glimmer of hope today, a date to plan to and further financial support reassured, but it looks like we have more weeks of uncertainty ahead of us.”
“With insufficient clarity as to when pubs will reopen, our sector remains in limbo and facing severe uncertainty and financial devastation. If government plans to keep pubs closed until the final phase of release, as rumoured, this would make pubs first in and last out of lockdown.”
TIM ALDERSLADE, CEO OF INDUSTRY ASSOCIATION AIRLINES UK:
“Ministers are effectively telling people they can no longer travel for the foreseeable future and airlines will respond to that by grounding their operations – and that is why they require urgent additional government support to get through this growing crisis.”