England has tentatively begun easing its coronavirus lockdown, with some people who cannot do their jobs at home urged to return to work, as stark economic data showed the disastrous impact of the pandemic.
The worst-hit country in Europe with the most deaths from COVID-19 according to official data, the United Kingdom has been in extensive lockdown since March 23.
As of Wednesday morning, people in manufacturing and certain other sectors were being asked to return to work if they could.
However, there were concerns for low-skilled workers and people from ethnic minority backgrounds, especially Black Britons, as recent data from the UK’s official statistics office has suggested both groups were more at risk of dying from COVID-19.
GDP data released on Wednesday showed the economy shrank by a record 5.8 percent in March compared with February, and the April data is likely to be even worse as the country was under lockdown for the entire month.
The government is loosening restrictions very gradually, for fear of triggering a second peak of infections.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has described the process as a “supremely difficult” balancing act.
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which have semi-autonomous governments, are sticking with a “stay at home” message for now, leaving England to take the lead in sending some people back to work.
The government has faced a barrage of criticism that its new guidance – “Stay alert, control the virus, save lives” – was confusing compared with the previous message – “Stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives”.
Appearing on Sky News TV, transport minister Grant Shapps was asked why estate agents were being allowed to restart house viewings when people could not have their own relatives to visit.
“The truth of the matter is, you have to start somewhere. The lockdown message was very straightforward – it was just stay at home. Now as we start to unlock, of course, there have to be decisions made,” Shapps said.
“There is no perfect way of doing this and we’d ask people to use their common sense … Right now, there has to be a cut-off somewhere.”
Workers were being advised to avoid public transport if at all possible, and schools remained closed, prompting questions about how parents and people who could not get to work by other means were supposed to apply the new guidance.
Employers faced the daunting task of creating safe environments for their staff, with detailed guidance on one-way systems at entry and exit points and in stairwells, spacing out workstations and other minutiae.
For those still working from home or unable to work, there was only a very slight change in the regime.
People were now allowed out to exercise more than once a day, and two people from separate households were allowed to meet outdoors as long as they kept two metres apart.
People in England can also move house while home viewings are also allowed for the first time since the country shut down on March 23, with more than 450,000 buyers and renters currently caught in limbo.