Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Sunday the United Kingdom’s coronavirus lockdown would be in place until at least June 1, as he unveiled cautious plans to lift restrictions imposed seven weeks ago.
“This is not the time simply to end the lockdown this week,” Johnson said in a televised address. “Instead, we are taking the first careful steps to modify our measures.”
From Monday, those who cannot work from home will be actively encouraged to go to work, he said, and from Wednesday people will be allowed to take unlimited amounts of outdoor exercise as long as they adhere to social distancing guidelines.
“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,” he said.
Until now, people have been expected to exercise outdoors once a day, do so locally, and – despite recent spells of warm weather – told not to go to parks to sit in the sun.
Social distancing rules must still be obeyed, Johnson said, adding that fines would be increased for those who break them.
Johnson said that at the earliest by June 1, the UK might be in a position to begin the phased reopening of shops and to get primary pupils back into schools, in stages, beginning with the youngest and oldest year groups.
An official said the government would want to see the other years going back to school before the summer holidays.
“Our ambition is that secondary pupils facing exams next year will get at least some time with their teachers before the holidays. And we will shortly be setting out detailed guidance on how to make it work in schools and shops and on transport,” Johnson said.
Other year classes in secondary schools are not expected to return to school before the summer holidays.
He detailed an alert system ranging from level 1, in which the virus is no longer present, to level 5, the most critical, that will allow the government to flag risks in different parts of England and to decrease or increase restrictions where necessary.
Johnson’s government has faced criticism from opposition parties and others over its handling of the pandemic and the prime minister is wary of taking the brakes off too soon.
The UK’s coronavirus death toll – 31,855 – is the second-highest in the world, behind only the United States. The bulk of the cases and deaths have been in England.
The Sunday Times reported that scientific advisers had told the government deaths could exceed 100,000 by the end of the year if lockdown measures are relaxed too quickly.
The government’s decision to replace its “stay at home” slogan, drummed into the public for weeks, was criticised by opposition parties who called the new “stay alert” message too ambiguous.
Johnson earlier tweeted a new government poster with rules including “stay at home as much as possible”, “limit contact with other people” and “keep your distance if you go out”.
Opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer said Johnson’s statement did not provide enough clarity.
“This statement raises more questions than it answers, and we see the prospect of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland pulling in different directions,” Starmer said in a statement.
“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.” Starmer added.
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the only modification she was making to lockdown measures was to allow people to exercise more than once a day.
“[That] is the only change that the Scottish government judges that it is safe to make right now without risking a rapid resurgence of the virus,” she told a news conference.
Sturgeon also said she had asked the UK government not to use its “stay alert” advertising campaign in Scotland.
The UK’s economy – the world’s fifth-largest – has been hammered by the pandemic and the lockdown measures.
The government has faced steady questions from Labour and others on why the country was not locked down earlier, why it has struggled to administer mass testing and why there have been shortages of protective equipment for medics and care workers.
Johnson himself is recovering after falling critically ill with COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus, last month.
At the earliest by July, and if the infection rates support it, there could be the reopening of at least some of the hospitality industry and other public places, provided they are safe and enforce social distancing, he added.
With both the death rate and hospital admissions falling, Johnson said it would be “madness” to allow a second spike in infections.
Changes will be closely monitored at a local, regional and national level and the government would “not hesitate to put on the brakes” if there are outbreaks, he said.