Restrictions on social and economic activity may have to remain in place for “the long haul”, as a coronavirus treatment or vaccine could be more than a year away and may never arrive, Boris Johnson has warned in a document setting out a limited relaxation of lockdown.
The 60-page Covid-19 recovery strategy document sets out detailed guidelines for changes to lockdown rules to apply in England from Wednesday, including a return to work – where it is safe – for those unable to do their jobs at home as well as new freedoms to take outdoor exercise and spend time sunbathing or picnicking in parks.
It confirms for the first time that the government is advising the wearing of face-coverings – but not medical face-masks – in settings like public transport and some shops.
And it sets out longer-term plans for schools and non-essential shops to start reopening from 1 June and reveals that the government is considering a move to allow “social bubbles” of two households who can mingle with one another.
But it makes clear that any easing of restrictions is conditional on there being no resurgence of the virus, with the government reserving the option of reimposing a tight lockdown nationally or locally if there are signs of the outbreak flaring up again.
Launching the strategy a day after he outlined its contents in a TV address - and on the day the Office for National Statistics reported that 0.24 per cent of the population of England, some 136,000 people, had coronavirus in the first week of May - Mr Johnson said: “This document sets out a plan to rebuild the UK for a world with Covid-19.
“It is not a quick return to ‘normality’. Nor does it lay out an easy answer. And, inevitably, parts of this plan will adapt as we learn more about the virus.
“But it is a plan that should give the people of the United Kingdom hope. Hope that we can rebuild; hope that we can save lives; hope that we can safeguard livelihoods.”
Labour leader Keir Starmer said the PM still had questions to answer over the way ahead.
In a TV broadcast responding to Mr Johnson's announcement, Starmer said: "The prime minister said he was setting out a road map, but if we’re to complete the journey safely a roadmap needs clear directions.
"So many of us have questions that need answering. How can we be sure our workplaces are now safe to return to? How can we get to work safely if we need public transport to do so? How can millions of people go back to work while balancing childcare and caring responsibilities? How do our police enforce these rules? And why are some parts of the United Kingdom now on a different path to others?"
And acting Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey said: “In changing the advice and changing the messaging the government has spread confusion and put at risk what people have fought so hard for. The prime minister is creating more confusion than clarity by badly communicating his government's plans.
"We must put people's health first. The only way route out of the current lockdown is to radically expand our capacity to test, trace and isolate, which the government is still a long way away from achieving."
Following anger from devolved administrations over Mr Johnson's switch from his "stay home" message to a new "stay alert" slogan, Downing Street confirmed that the executives in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast had been consulted on the strategy but not on the wording of the new advice.
Mr Johnson stressed that the UK cannot hope to be Covid-free in the near future and will have to learn to live with the disease.
“It is clear that the only feasible long-term solution lies with a vaccine or drug-based treatment,” he said.
“A mass vaccine or treatment may be more than a year away. Indeed, in a worst-case scenario, we may never find a vaccine.
“So our plan must countenance a situation where we are in this, together, for the long haul, even while doing all we can to avoid that outcome.”
Mr Johnson said he accepted that the lockdown arrangements in place since March “do not provide an enduring solution” because the price to social and economic life is “too heavy” and has brought loneliness and fear to many people.
The new strategy, entitled Our Plan to Rebuild, aims to “return life to as close to normal as possible, for as many people as possible, as fast and fairly as possible, in a way that is safe and continues to protect our NHS”, with the “overriding priority” of saving lives, he said.
Answering MPs' questions on the plan in the House of Commons, Mr Johnson praised the “indomitable spirit of Britain” and urged members of the public to keep observing social distancing guidelines.
But he told MPs he was ready to reimpose tighter restrictions if there was any sign of coronavirus cases spiking up again.
“If the data goes the wrong way, if the alert level begins to rise, we will have no hesitation in putting on the brakes and delaying or reintroducing measures locally, regionally, or nationally,” said the PM.
“Our challenge is to find a way forward that preserves our hard-won gains while easing the burden of lockdown and, I’ll be candid with the House, this is a supremely difficult balance to strike.”
The gradual easing of social-distancing guidelines will require a widespread test, track and trace system to monitor the spread of the disease, and the redesign of public places and workspaces to make them “Covid-19 secure”, while measures to shield the most vulnerable and protect care homes will have to remain in place.
“I must ask the country to be patient with a continued disruption to our normal way of life, but to be relentless in pursuing our mission to build the systems we need,” said Mr Johnson. “The worst possible outcome would be a return to the virus being out of control – with the cost to human life, and – through the inevitable reimposition of severe restrictions – the cost to the economy.”
The document describes Mr Johnson’s plan as “a cautious roadmap to ease existing measures in a safe and measured way, subject to successfully controlling the virus and being able to monitor and react to its spread”.
It notes that “a zero-risk approach will not work in these unprecedented times”, but says the plan will be kept constantly under review as the pandemic, and the world’s understanding of it, develops.
Key features of the three phases of England’s move out of lockdown include:
Step One, to be introduced from Wednesday:
- Workers who cannot do their jobs at home to go to their workplace where it is safe to do so, with sectors like food production, construction, manufacturing, logistics, distribution and scientific research expected to reopen.
- Local authorities to encourage more vulnerable children and children of key workers to attend school.
- Nannies and childminders to be allowed to work where it can be done safely.
- Public advised to wear face-coverings over the nose and mouth in enclosed spaces where social distancing cannot be maintained, such as public transport and some shops.
- Unlimited outdoor exercise or recreation with one person from outside your household, reopening of outdoor sports facilities like tennis courts, golf courses and angling lakes. Permission to drive to outdoor open spaces like parks, woods and beaches within England – all dependent on social-distancing regulations being observed.
- Socialising with one person from outside your household in a park – but not a garden – while maintaining two metres’ distance.
- A 14-day quarantine to be introduced “as soon as possible” for all international travellers arriving in the UK, with a few exemptions including people coming from Ireland.
Chief medical officer Chris Whitty said Step One can go ahead because scientists are “confident” that the rate of transmission – known as R – is below one, meaning that each infected person on average passes the virus on to less than one other person.
“We are confident that these quite small changes will not have a material affect on their own – provided that people stick to the social distancing and the rules that are there – on increasing R beyond where it is at the moment,” said Professor Whitty.
“Set against that, there are very clear health benefits to exercise and there are benefits to making this sustainable. We have got to do this for the long haul. Taking a very small risk to make it more sustainable for people to do has some clear benefits.
“We are not claiming there are no risks to this, but what we think is they are very small and proportionate to the advantage in terms of overall wellbeing, exercise – leading to good health – and sustainability.”
Step Two, to be made no earlier than 1 June:
- Children to return to early years nurseries, as well as reception classes, year one and year six of primary schools. All primary children to return for a month before the summer holiday if possible.
- Face-to-face contact with teachers for secondary pupils in years 10 and 12, who have GCSEs or A-levels next year.
- Non-essential shops to open where it is safe to do so, in phases from the start of June, with guidance due shortly on which kinds of stores will open when.
- Permitting cultural and sporting events behind closed doors for broadcast.
- Reopening more public transport in urban areas.
- Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies to consider whether household groups can be expanded to include one other household, to allow social contacts between broader families or between partners who do not live together.
- Government to consider permitting small weddings.
Step Three, to take place no earlier than 4 July:
- Open at least some of remaining closed businesses, including hairdressers, beauty salons, restaurants, pubs and cinemas, as well as places of worship, where they meet Covid-19 secure guidelines.
- Venues which are designed to be crowded and to allow social interacting, such as nightclubs, may still not be able to reopen safely.
“The Government must also prioritise the situation in care homes. The scarcity of protective equipment and testing means many care workers have been forced to compromise their safety whilst working. The Government is finally recognising the need to test everyone in care homes, but that should have been in place already. Care workers and residents cannot afford to wait another 3 weeks."
The full recovery strategy can be read at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/our-plan-to-rebuild-the-uk-governments-covid-19-recovery-strategy
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