LONDON — Boris Johnson had something for everyone.
The U.K. prime minister resisted calls for a wholesale lifting of the U.K. coronavirus lockdown Sunday, but showed what the light at the end of the tunnel could look like in a bid to relieve mounting pressure from critics.
In Sunday evening’s somber televised address, filmed in Downing Street, Johnson sought to provide direction to an uncertain nation, which only a matter of weeks ago had watched its leader struck down by a near-fatal bout of the virus. The prime minister attempted to allay the fears both of the wider public, which polls indicate overwhelmingly support lockdown measures, those within his own party who fear the economic impact of the crisis, and the increasing, though small, numbers of restless Brits flouting the rules.
Those looking for clarity will likely have been disappointed. Johnson laid out a three-phase plan for easing restrictions that was laden with caveats. He described it as “the first sketch of a roadmap for reopening society,” with more detail promised by officials in the coming days.
First, Johnson said people who are unable to work from home should head to work from Monday, though without providing guidance to businesses about how to manage social-distancing requirements. The public will be free to take unlimited exercise — up from an hour a day currently — and spend more time in parks and on beaches from Wednesday.
The plan offers hope to the fiscal hawks who have been pushing the prime minister to open up the economy.
Then, primary schools and shops could begin a gradual reopening from the beginning of June, while cafés and restaurants, places of worship and cinemas could begin opening from the beginning of July. All would have to abide by rigorous social-distancing measures.
The plan offers hope to the fiscal hawks who have been pushing the prime minister to open up the economy. Government advisers say the prime minister fears a second spike of the virus and so wants to tread cautiously, but restless Conservative MPs are increasingly expressing concern the cure could be worse than the disease and have been calling for a route out.
Johnson will hope his message will keep the likes of David Davis, Steve Baker and John Redwood, as well as members of his own Cabinet, satisfied for at least a few weeks longer. His decision to lay out specific dates should help, even if there were enough caveats to keep the safety-conscious doves onside to render them disposable.
However, the statement, along with a new government slogan urging people to “stay alert,” will do little to convince those who accuse Johnson of failing to be precise.
“What the country really wanted tonight was clarity and a real sense of consensus, and I don’t think we got either,” Labour leader Keir Starmer told BBC News after the statement.
“Those that can’t work at home are being told to go to work tomorrow. That’s millions of people. That means: Go to work in about 12 hours’ time, mixed with the message that, if it’s possible, don’t use public transport. That’s quite a thing to spring on people for tomorrow morning.”
Earlier Sunday, the government released a new communications campaign that was rejected by leaders in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland within hours. The new message replaced “Stay at home” with “Stay alert,” which critics on all sides slammed as lacking clarity.
However, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced the same relaxation of exercise restrictions, suggesting the differences between the four nations could prove more cosmetic than substantial.
In a further bid to manage public concern and expectations, the government has devised a new Covid Alert System. It will inform the public of the coronavirus risk level and determine the scope of lockdown required on a five-tier scale — 5 being the highest risk and 1 being the lowest. It will be based on the infection rate and number of cases.
Based on the terror threat-level indicator the government already uses to deliver messaging to the public, the alert system will give Brits a guide as to when to worry and when further relaxation is safe.
“Over the period of the lockdown, we have been in level 4, and it is thanks to your sacrifice we are now in a position to begin to move in steps to level 3,” Johnson said, setting the expectation marker immediately.
“This is not the time simply to end the lockdown this week,” he said. “Instead we are taking the first careful steps to modify our measures.” As an added incentive, he noted that fines for those breaching the rules will be increased.
Charlie Cooper contributed reporting.
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