LONDON — Under fire for lack of clarity over its lockdown exit plan, the U.K. government on Monday set out more details in an attempt to clear things up.
The publication of a 50-page document followed Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s televised address to the nation on Sunday evening, which was widely criticized for lacking precision. A broadcast round by Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab on Monday morning ahead of the document’s release added to the confusion when he appeared to contradict the prime minister’s assertion that anyone who is able to work safely should return to their jobs on Wednesday, not Monday as Johnson had stated the night before.
Speaking in the Commons Monday afternoon, Johnson said the public will use “good, solid, British common sense” when it comes to applying the new rules, arguing that approach had worked in the fight against the virus so far. But the package of measures was lambasted by MPs for raising more questions than it answered. “The last 24 hours have spread confusion,” SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford told him.
The document, which only covers measures in England, warned it won’t be a “quick return to normality” and that the “only feasible long-term solution lies with a vaccine or drug-based treatment.” It ruled out drastic changes in the near term, such as allowing schools to fully return, because of the risk of a second wave “that could be larger than the first” and successive waves in the future, potentially coinciding with the next winter flu season.
“In a population where most people are lacking immunity, the epidemic would double in size every few days if no control measures were in place,” the document says.
The plan divides the exit into phases. As the country leaves phase one (lockdown), the plan sets out which restrictions will be replaced with “measures that reflect the level of risk at that point in time.” These measures will be announced in successive steps with several weeks in between to allow for monitoring, and subject to “strict conditions to move from each step to the next.” In phase three, the government hopes effective treatments or a vaccine will be rolled out, bringing the effect of the virus to “manageable levels.”
Also from Wednesday, people will be allowed to leave the house for exercise or recreation for an unlimited amount of time.
However, devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have indicated they are reluctant to follow suit. Although health policy in the U.K. is devolved, until now the four nations have coordinated their response.
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced at a press conference Monday that the only change that would apply norther of the border is permission to exercise more than once a day. She said the Scottish government “is not yet confident” it can encourage workers to go back to their workplaces when they can’t work from home “without running the risk of the virus potentially running out of control again.”
The Welsh government, too, said it intends to move more slowly and won’t re-open schools on June 1.
Johnson’s plan acknowledged restrictions could be adjusted at a different pace across the U.K.’s nations and regions, especially when it comes to responding to local outbreaks. Any changes to lockdown rules will be announced at least 48 hours before they come into effect, and the impact will be monitored by a new Joint Biosecurity Centre, which will also be responsible for a new “alert level,” which seeks to explain the risk to the public by setting levels from one to five.
Johnson rejected a charge put by Plaid Cymru’s Liz Saville Roberts that he was governing as the prime minister for England only.
“No I reject that completely,” Johnson shot back. “It is very good advice for the entire United Kingdom.” But he said he respected local “inflections” depending on need in the three other nations.
Work if you can
From Wednesday, the emphasis of government advice will change, the document says, to encourage people to go to work if they are unable to do their jobs from home and if the workplace can implement social distancing measures safely. Anyone able to work from home should continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Food production, construction, manufacturing, logistics, distribution and scientific research in laboratories are all cited as examples of sectors where workers may return.
According to the government’s guidance, employers can reduce the risk of infection in the workplace by limiting the number of people that any individual comes into contact with regularly, for instance by changing shift patterns and rotas and by ventilating workplaces.
To facilitate parents’ return to work, the government wants local authorities and schools to urge vulnerable children or the children of critical workers to attend school. It is also amending its guidance to clarify that paid childcare, such as nannies and childminders, can operate subject to some public health guidance.
The government is now advising workers who must take public transport or shoppers in enclosed spaces to cover their face, despite scientific advisers having previously said the evidence for this was weak. Local councils will receive funding to widen pavements, create cycle lanes and close some roads to traffic.
Good hygiene practices (handwashing, social distancing and regular disinfecting of surfaces) will remain, and the number of social contacts people make each day will continue to be limited. Those with symptoms or in a household where someone has symptoms should not leave their house to go to work.
Also from Wednesday, people will be allowed to leave the house for exercise or recreation for an unlimited amount of time. One person will be allowed to meet one other person from a different household in a public space as long as they stay 2 meters apart, but gatherings of more than two people from different households will remain banned. The government has also asked the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies to study whether, when and how it can allow people to expand their household group to include one other household, possibly following the New Zealand model of household “bubbles.”
The government fell short of quarantining the over-70s, pregnant women and those with chronic pre-existing conditions, but it does continue to advise these groups to stay at home at all times and minimize contact with others.
People arriving from abroad will be required to self-isolate for 14 days, either in their own accommodation or in that provided by the state. This rule will come into force “as soon as possible” but not on Wednesday. There will be some exemptions, including arrivals from Ireland, and those critical to guaranteeing supplies, supporting national security and critical infrastructure, and to meeting the U.K.’s international obligations.
In a joint statement with French President Emmanuel Macron on Sunday evening, Johnson said no quarantine measures would apply to travelers coming from France at this stage. However, the document published Monday does not confirm this.
New normal from June
From June 1 at the earliest, the government hopes some children will be able to return to education in smaller class sizes.
The reopening of non-essential shops will take place in phases from this date, provided there is no worsening in the spread of the virus. The government will issue further guidance soon on which businesses will be allowed to reopen in each phase. Hospitality and beauty services such as hairdressers will remain closed. Cultural and sporting events will take place behind closed doors for broadcast, and local public transport services in urban areas will increase.
From July 4 at the earliest, the government hopes to reopen some remaining businesses, including hairdressers and beauty salons, the hospitality sector, public places and leisure facilities including cinemas, subject to guidelines. However, these measures are heavily caveated.
In a nod to public concerns about lack of preparedness, the government anticipates a “rapid re-engineering” of its structures and institutions to protect the entire U.K. “for decades to come.”
“COVID-19 will not be the last major disease that endangers us. The government must prepare and build now for diseases that could threaten us in the future,” it said.
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