Boris Johnson says he is taking “the first careful steps” in easing the coronavirus lockdown – with people in England allowed to spend more leisure time outside from Wednesday.
In a pre-recorded address to the nation, the prime minister said the government wants to “encourage people to take more and even unlimited amounts of outdoor exercise” – provided they stick to social distancing guidelines and stay two metres apart.
And in a bid to kickstart the economy, Mr Johnson said anyone who cannot work from home – such as those in construction and manufacturing – should be “actively encouraged” to go to work from tomorrow.
The PM stressed that now “is not the time” to end the lockdown altogether – and said the government is simply taking “the first careful steps” to ease certain measures.
Explaining how things will change from Wednesday, he added: “You can sit in the sun in your local park, you can drive to other destinations, you can even play sports but only with members of your own household.”
However, Mr Johnson warned that fines are going to be increased for the “small minority” who fail to obey social distancing rules.
And he said that the impact of all of these changes is going to be “closely monitored” at a local, regional and national level, adding: “If there are outbreaks, if there are problems, we will not hesitate to put on the brakes.”
During the address to the nation, Mr Johnson also said:
- He believes children could gradually return to primary school from 1 June at the earliest – beginning with reception, Year 1 and Year 6
- At least some of the hospitality industry and other public places could begin to reopen in July at the earliest “if and only if the numbers support it”
- “It will soon be the time” to impose quarantine on people coming into the UK by air
- The UK’s COVID-19 reproduction rate, also known as R, is between 0.5 and 0.9, “but potentially only just below one”
- The lockdown measures “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”
- On a new five-stage COVID Alert Level, where one means the disease is no longer present and five is the most critical, the UK is currently at level four and “in a position to begin to move in steps to level three”
The PM stressed that any further relaxation of the lockdown measures “is conditional – it all depends on a series of big ifs”.
He said: “Throughout this period of the next two months we will be driven not by mere hope or economic necessity.
“We are going to be driven by the science, the data and public health.”
Although Britons can return to their workplaces from tomorrow if necessary, the prime minister stressed that safety should be a priority when they are commuting.
“You should avoid public transport if at all possible, because we must and will maintain social distancing, and capacity will therefore be limited,” he added.
“So work from home if you can, but you should go to work if you can’t work from home.”
New guidance is also being offered to employers so workplaces can become “COVID secure”.
Mr Johnson also thanked the public “for the effort and personal sacrifice they have made to reduce the spread of coronavirus and protect the NHS” – but warned “it would be madness to throw away that achievement by allowing a second spike”.
In a nod to his new slogan, he added: “We must stay alert. We must continue to control the virus and save lives.”
The PM reiterated that keeping the infection rate down and beginning a return to a semblance of normality depended on a unified effort.
“It depends on all of us – the entire country – to follow the advice, to observe the social distancing and to keep that R down,” Mr Johnson said.
He also unveiled a five-stage coronavirus warning system which will help guide the government’s response as it begins easing the lockdown.
It will detect increases in COVID-19 infection rates and judge how strict lockdown measures and social distancing rules should be locally.
People are now being told to “stay alert, control the virus, save lives” – staying home as much as possible, continuing to keep two metres apart when outside, and limiting contact with other people.
But the government’s new slogan – a change from the previous mantra of “stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives” – has been criticised by some for being unclear and confusing.
The leaders of the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have already said they will not use this updated message – telling their citizens to simply “stay at home” instead.
Meanwhile, Labour leader 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.”
Mr Johnson’s speech comes after ministers were accused of sending “mixed messages” and creating false hope that a significant easing of the restrictions was on the cards.
In recent days, some newspaper front pages have declared that “lockdown freedom beckons”, while others said the “first steps to freedom” will begin.