Boris Johnson accused of spreading confusion as he sets out first steps out of coronavirus lockdown

Devolved nations reject prime minister’s decision to drop ‘stay home’ message

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
,Ashley Cowburn
Sunday 10 May 2020 20:50 BST
The key soundbites from Boris Johnson's lockdown statement

Boris Johnson has been accused of spreading confusion over Britain’s fight against coronavirus as he split with devolved governments over lockdown advice.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland rejected his decision to ditch the “stay home” advice in favour of new guidance to “stay alert, control the virus, save lives”.

In a recorded TV address to the nation, the prime minister set out limited relaxations of lockdown rules which will apply in England only. He promised “the first sketch of a roadmap for reopening society”.

Workers unable to do their jobs from home – such as those in construction and manufacturing – are encouraged to return on Monday if they can do so safely, avoiding public transport if possible.

From Wednesday, people will be able to sunbathe in parks, play sports with members of their households, drive to leisure destinations like golf courses, tennis courts or angling lakes and take unlimited amounts of exercise – but only if they maintain two-metre social distancing rules.

Non-essential shops and schools, starting with nurseries and some primary pupils, could begin to reopen as early as 1 June. Secondary school pupils in years 10 and 12 – who face GCSEs and A-levels next year – will get face-to-face time with teachers before the summer, but others will not return before September.

In July at the earliest, Mr Johnson said that “some of the hospitality industry” could reopen, in a move thought likely initially to involve cafes in parks, or restaurants with outdoor spaces where tables can be separated. Places of worship and cinemas may also be able to admit visitors from this point where it is safe to do so.

Meanwhile, the prime minister declared that, for the first time, people entering the UK from abroad will be subject to a 14-day quarantine, in a move which provoked horror among the travel industry. Following a phone call with French president Emmanuel Macron, the two leaders announced that they would consult before imposing any quarantine restrictions between the UK and France.

The prime minister said he had consulted widely on the proposed change to official advice and believed there was a “general consensus” on changes, all of which are conditional on the crucial rate of transmission of the disease – known as R – remaining below one.

But Labour leader Keir Starmer said the new stay alert guidance “just isn’t clear enough” and warned the prime minister’s statement had raised more questions than it answered.

And in a scathing response, Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon told the Westminster government not to deploy the new message north of the border, warning the “vague and imprecise” slogan could be “catastrophic”.

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said the new guidance, giving workers just 12 hours’ notice of a return to sites and factories, was “a recipe for chaos” which would “cause working people a lot of confusion and anxiety”.

Mr Johnson’s plan, agreed by cabinet following a six-week review of lockdown restrictions introduced in March, envisages a gradual three-step easing of restrictions, dependent on satisfactory progress on the control of Covid-19.

A new joint biosecurity centre will establish a five-stage alert system, from level five – which would see the NHS overwhelmed by the pandemic – to level one, when it is finally eradicated from the UK.

The nation watches the PM make changes to the lockdown on Sunday
The nation watches the PM make changes to the lockdown on Sunday (AFP/Getty)

The prime minister said the UK is in level four but will soon start moving to three because of success in driving down transmission through “restrictions on freedom – your freedom – of a kind that we have never seen before in peace or war”.

Mr Johnson said: “This is not the time simply to end the lockdown this week.

“Instead we are taking the first careful steps to modify our measures.

“And the first step is a change of emphasis that we hope that people will act on this week.”

In a bid to ensure that social distancing measures are maintained as the lockdown is relaxed, fines will be increased to £100 for a first offence, doubling for each subsequent breach up to a maximum of £3,200.

In the first breakdown of the all-UK approach adopted during the epidemic so far, leaders of devolved administrations said they had not been consulted over the “stay alert” message and will not follow England in implementing step one of the relaxations this week, though Ms Sturgeon said citizens north of the border can take unlimited exercise from Monday.

Sir Keir Starmer said: “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.”

Ms O’Grady said: “Boris Johnson’s statement will cause working people a lot of confusion and anxiety.

“The government still hasn’t published guidance on how workers will be kept safe. So how can the prime minister – with 12 hours’ notice – tell people they should be going back to sites and factories? It’s a recipe for chaos.”

The director-general of the CBI, Carolyn Fairbairn, said Mr Johnson’s plan offered “the first glimmer of light for our faltering economy”.

She said: “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.

“This announcement marks the start of a long process. While stopping work was necessarily fast and immediate, restarting will be slower and more complex. It must go hand-in-hand with plans for schools, transport, testing and access to PPE. Firms will want to see a roadmap, with dates they can plan for.”

Manuel Cortes, Transport Salaried Staffs Association general-secretary, said that “mixed messaging” from the prime minister was “dangerous”, adding: “The PM telling people who can’t work from home to go to work but not use public transport is a ridiculous notion by someone who appears to have lost all grasp of reality. It will cause chaos. Our transport network is not ready for any increase in passengers.”

The national chair of the Police Federation of England and Wales, John Apter, said that frontline officers were facing “extreme pressure” after a week of mixed messages which meant that many people acted as though the lockdown had already ended.

“Police officers will continue to do their best, but their work must be based on crystal clear guidance, not loose rules that are left open to interpretation – because that will be grossly unfair on officers whose job is already challenging,” said Mr Apter. “If the message of what is expected of the public is not clear then it will make the job of policing this legislation almost impossible.”

Mr Johnson thanked the public for observing lockdown measures introduced in March, which he said had “prevented this country from being engulfed by what could have been a catastrophe in which the reasonable worst-case scenario was half a million fatalities”.

It would be “madness now to throw away that achievement by allowing a second spike”, he said.

Any easing of restrictions would be “conditional” on the government’s five tests to protect the NHS, he said.

“We have a route, and we have a plan, and everyone in government has the all-consuming pressure and challenge to save lives, restore livelihoods and gradually restore the freedoms that we need,” said the PM.

“But in the end, this is a plan that everyone must make work…

“If we can’t do it by those dates, and if the alert level won’t allow it, we will simply wait and go on until we have got it right.”

Mr Johnson, who will set out his plan in an oral statement to the House of Commons on Monday before taking questions from the public in a TV appearance, said: “We will come back from this devilish illness. We will come back to health, and robust health… But for now we must stay alert, control the virus and save lives.”

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