Boris Johnson has announced the first, gradual steps towards loosening the coronavirus lockdown. Below is what has been unveiled, plus some other areas where we are still awaiting details. More information is expected to be put to parliament on Monday, and some areas remain opaque.
The most significant immediate change is Johnson formally urging people who cannot work at home – for example in construction – to return to their jobs from Monday. Johnson said such people “should be actively encouraged to go to work”, while trying to avoid public transport and maintaining physical distancing. While the PM says every workplace should be “Covid-secure”, the plan for more people returning to work will bring fresh warnings from unions about the predicament of staff who feel they are not being kept safe. Unions were sent outline guidance by the government a week ago, and reacted angrily, saying it lacked teeth and could let “bad bosses” force the vulnerable to return to work against their will. It will also be a matter for debate what jobs can and cannot be done from home.
For those going back to work, Johnson said they should avoid crowded public transport and either go by car, “or even better by walking or bicycle”. The latter advice follows on from the announcement on Saturday by Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, of new powers for councils to widen pavements and create new cycle lanes to boost active, socially-distanced travel. The hope is to avoid gridlock in towns and cities and many thousands of people choose to drive to work, but Shapps acknowledged that the capacity of Britain’s transport network will be reduced by 90%.
Johnson confirmed the tentative plan to start opening schools in England, starting with reception and year one (aged four to six) and year six (aged 10-11) in primary school, after the half term at the start of June. This is, however, seen as “the earliest” it could happen, and will rely on teachers and schools being assured about measures such as proper distancing, which is by no means guaranteed. Unions have also demanded the rollout of a nationwide testing and contact-tracing scheme and the provision of funding for sufficient PPE before schools reopen. While the hope is for nurseries to open soon, secondary schools are set to return only in September, beyond the “ambition” for secondary school students with exams next year to have some time with their teachers.
While some shops could start to reopen with schools, at the start of June, the hospitality industry will need to wait for stage three of the lockdown, in July “at the earliest”, and only if there can be safe social distancing. This will be expected, but is still grim news for an entire sector of the economy struggling to stay afloat, with no real end to the bad news in sight. And it also does not apply to pubs, who have no indication when they can consider opening again. A mention of the hope of opening other “public places” – with no timeline – could refer to places of worship, or even cinemas that have enabled physical distancing.
As widely expected, people will be formally allowed to go out for exercise more than once a day. In addition, people will be permitted to meet and sit down with one other person, outdoors, if they remain two metres apart. The new rules will start on Wednesday, when people can undertake “unlimited amounts of outdoor exercise”, and sunbathe or drive to destinations for exercise. Sports including angling, swimming in lakes and rivers, tennis and golf will also be allowed, but only within household groups.
Johnson said it would “soon be the time” to impose quarantine on people coming into the UK. This had been widely briefed, with the expectation the quarantine will last for 14 days. However, Johnson did not specify a time limit, and said only it would be in place for people arriving by air. It had been expected that the quarantine would be invoked for everyone apart from freight drivers. Airports and the tourist industry have already voiced major concerns, saying the quarantine will dissuade people from flying.
Johnson said the UK was moving from level four to three of a new five-tier lockdown ranking system, with level five being in place if the NHS had been overwhelmed, and level one meaning coronavirus is no longer present in the UK. Such a scale is intended to help the public see the long-term strategy behind the slow loosening of rules, and keep them better informed as to what is happening when – or, in the view of some earlier critics, to start treating them like adults.
In his address, Johnson gave a formal public debut to the much-briefed, and widely mocked, follow-up slogan to the previous “Stay home, protect the NHS, save lives”. He said the public should “Stay alert to control the virus and save lives.” At her earlier press conference, Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, said that she would maintain the advice to stay at home, calling the new slogan “vague and imprecise”. Her warnings were echoed by members of the public.
The PM announced an increase in the current regime of possible fines for people who break physical distancing rules. Currently, the fine is £60 for a first-time offence, which doubles for each subsequent offence. They could now start at £100 and double for further offences, up to a maximum of £3,200. Government advisers had previously warned that large fines could disproportionately hit the disadvantaged.
There has been significant speculation that, with a loosening of restrictions, people might be allowed to combine households with friends or relatives, to expand their socially-limited circle. However, police had warned that enforcing such rules could be hugely difficult, and there was no sign of it in Johnson’s speech. The only concession on this is the idea of meeting one other person outdoors and at a distance. People are still not allowed to visit relatives or friends, with the exception that they can meet one person at a time outdoors while maintaining a 2 metre distance.
This has been an area of debate for weeks, and while Johnson did not mention face masks, more information is expected on Monday. There is good evidence that suitable quality masks can greatly help prevent people with Covid-19 from spreading it to others, making them useful on public transport or in shops. While many people do wear masks in public, the worry has been whether making them compulsory could restrict supplies for NHS and care staff, and if wearing them might make some people more lax about physical distancing, giving a false sense of assurance.
There had been reports these would be singled out as among the earlier businesses or other sites allowed to reopen. However, there was no mention of either in Johnson’s speech.