The UK government’s new advice for people to “stay alert” instead of “stay at home” has been criticised for being unclear about whether the lockdown is over, with Nicola Sturgeon saying Scotland would stick with the original message at this critical point in the epidemic.
The government briefed the latest “stay alert” messaging to the media overnight, ahead of Boris Johnson’s speech at 7pm on Sunday about easing the lockdown, but Sturgeon, the first minister of Scotland, said she had been given no advance sight of the slogan.
Labour also said the new “stay alert” messaging risked people thinking the lockdown was over, with people already having flocked to parks, beaches and street parties over the warm bank holiday weekend.
Johnson is expected to unveil a cautious path to easing restrictions in a speech, starting with unlimited exercise and the reopening of garden centres this week.
Speaking to Sky News, Robert Jenrick, the communities secretary, defended the new slogan, saying the time was right for the UK to start gradually getting back to work as normal as the coronavirus epidemic is past its peak.
Jenrick acknowledged the virus “continues to be prevalent, too many people are still dying of this and we’re going to have to live with it for a long time”.
But he told the Ridge on Sunday programme it was right to “update and broaden” the message to the public.
“I think that’s what the public want and that they will be able to understand this message, which is that we should be staying home as much as possible but when we do go to work and go about our business we need to remain vigilant, we need to stay alert,” he continued.
“And that means things like respecting others, remaining 2 metres apart, washing your hands, following the social distancing guidelines because the virus continues to be prevalent, too many people are still dying of this and we’re going to have to live with it for a long time.”
Jenrick said the message had to be changed to encourage people to resume their roles at work while staying safe. It follows concerns in the Treasury about the huge numbers of people who have been furloughed at a cost of £8bn by 3 May.
“We’re not going to take risks with the public. I understand people are anxious about the future but we want now to have a message which encourages people to go to work,” he said.
“Staying home will still be an important part of the message but you will be able to go to work and you will in time be able to do some other activities that you’re not able to do today.”
Pressed if there was a danger the message was too woolly, Jenrick said: “Well, I hope not. We need to have a broader message because we want to slowly and cautiously restart the economy and the country.”
Opposition politicians and some scientists said the slogan was too unspecific and would leave people thinking they no longer need to stay at home.
Ashworth also told Sky the country needed clarity from the government today on how they are meant to act as there was “no room for nuance” when dealing with a life-threatening virus.
“The problem with the slogan is that people will be looking at it slightly puzzled,” he said.
Sturgeon said: “The Sunday papers is the first I’ve seen of the PM’s new slogan. It is of course for him to decide what’s most appropriate for England, but given the critical point we are at in tackling the virus, #StayHomeSaveLives remains my clear message to Scotland at this stage.”
Ian Blackford, the SNP leader in Westminster, said: “What kind of buffoon thinks of this kind of nonsense? It is an invisible threat. Staying alert is not the answer.”
Susan Michie, a professor of health psychology at UCL, who has been a participant in the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), tweeted: “If a central source trails that picnicking in parks going to be allowed on Monday, a working day for many, is it surprising it happens two days earlier on a sunny bank Holiday weekend? Who is to blame? The Govt or people? We need responsible #COVID19 messaging & strategy.”
However, the government’s move to start reopening the economy won praise from some Conservative backbenchers who have been pressing for an end to the lockdown. David Davis, the former Brexit secretary, said he believed the government should allow “people to rely more on common sense than blanket rules”.
Jenrick also explained the government would adopt a new “five -level” threat system to describe the risk the UK faces from coronavirus.
“At the moment we believe the country is at four on a scale of five,
with five being the most concerning and our aspiration is to bring
that down as swiftly as we can to three,” he said.
“And at each stage, at each of those milestones, we will be in a position to open up and restart more aspects of the economy and of our lives.”
The decision over when and how to lift the lockdown has been the subject of a huge battle within the cabinet and the wider Tory party.
Johnson has been on the cautious side of the argument, along with the health secretary, Matt Hancock, with cabinet ministers Michael Gove, Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss, as well as many other Tory MPs, among those pushing for more thought to be given to the economic consequences.
With tensions running high, the Mail on Sunday reported a row between Johnson and Hancock, who is said to have asked the prime minister to “give me a break” over the pressure he was feeling about the crisis.