PM Boris Johnson has unveiled a ‘conditional plan’ to loosen restrictions which will allow people in England to spend more time outdoors from Wednesday. He also said that people who could not work from home should return to work but avoid public transport.
The PM revealed the new message of ‘stay alert, control the virus, save lives’ and said that a new Covid Alert System with five levels would determine how quickly lockdown restrictions could be eased. He hoped that the next step would be for some primary pupils to return to school in England ‘at the earliest by June 1’.
Addressing the nation, Mr Johnson said this stage could also involve opening shops if supported by the science. The next step could mean some hospitality businesses and other public places reopening ‘as long as the numbers support it’ but not earlier than July 1. He stated that these steps were the first part of a ‘sketch of a road map to reopen society’.
Mr Johnson also warned that this is not the time simply to end the lockdown but to take the the first ‘baby’ steps to modify the measures, confirming that fines for the ‘small minority who break’ lockdown rules will increase.
Testing still problematic
The PM added that however many times people would wish to leave home to exercise or sunbathe in parks, they would also be able to drive to other destinations. He pointed out that he was also ‘serving notice’ that the time was coming when a quarantine would be imposed on people coming into the country by air.
Nick Triggle, Health Correspondent of the BBC, commented that the PM is trying to have his cake and eat it by wanting to try to restart normal life, while fighting the virus with limited means to do so. The absence of a vaccine means that the Government will rely on containing any local outbreaks, presumably by applying lockdown measures once again.
However, the problem is that despite the extra testing that has been implemented over the past month, there are still logistical difficulties in the UK’s ability to fight the virus. Tests are taking a long time to process, in some cases several days, and those who require regular testing, such as care home staff, are still saying they cannot routinely access tests.
The trial of the app to trace the close contacts of infected people has only just begun on the Isle of Wight and the army of contact tracers promised by Matt Hancock, Health Secretary, has yet to materialise. Apparently, adverts for the positions were only posted late last week.
Speech lacking ‘clarity and consensus’
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer commented that Mr Johnson’s speech lacked ‘clarity and consensus’ and raised ‘as many questions as it answers’. Speaking to BBC News, he said that millions of people who are unable to work from home are being told to return to work with just 12 hours’ notice, and not to use public transport.
Acting Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey said he was at a loss to understand why the Government had abruptly changed its message at this stage, risking what people have fought so hard for. Mr Johnson confirmed in his speech that he had consulted ‘across the political spectrum, across all four nations of the UK’ and that his plan was ‘a general consensus on what we could do’.
However, this was hotly contested by members of the devolved governments of the UK. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said that the PM should have emphasised that the changes he mentioned in his speech applied only to England.
The Northern Ireland executive said it would ‘consider its plan for a phased, strategic approach to recovery’ today, while Wales’s health minister Vaughan Gething said there had not been a ‘four-nations agreement’ on the new ‘stay alert’ message and that the advice to’stay at home’ in Wales was unchanged.
While leaders have expressed a wish to move forward in unison, they may do so at different speeds.