In his first statement to Parliament on the coronavirus pandemic, months after the beginning of the outbreak in the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday issued a lengthy clarification to his government’s advice over the lifting of lockdown measures.
He had addressed citizens on Sunday evening in a recorded televised address, but his statement was criticised for prompting more questions than it had answered.
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The prime minister, who was himself hospitalised with the virus, said those people who could not work from home should return to their usual places of work, but did not specify who those people were, when they should return, or what bosses should do to ensure those workplaces were safe.
He also said public transport should be avoided where possible, but confusion about who should be returning to work, as well as drastically-reduced services, led to chaotic scenes on Monday morning of crowded London Underground platforms leaving commuters with no chance of social distancing.
Adding to the confusion was Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary who deputised for Johnson when the prime minister was sick, as he appeared to change the government’s lockdown advice three times within an hour during appearances on Monday morning talk shows.
Raab told Sky News that government scientists were studying whether there could be limited contact between family members who live in separate households.
He then told BBC News that a person could see both of their parents, as long as they did so outdoors, and one at a time – “mum in the morning and dad in the afternoon”, while maintaining social distancing of two metres.
Subsequently interviewed on BBC Radio 4, Raab said that people could meet both of their parents at the same time, for example, in a park, as long as they kept to the two-metre distancing rule.
Johnson made his statement in the House of Commons in the afternoon, and led a later-than-usual news briefing in the evening.
“Our challenge now is to find a way forward that preserves our hard-won gains while easing the burden of lockdown,” he told Parliament. “This is a supremely difficult balance.”
Opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer said the government had been issuing conflicting guidance that did not answer the public’s practical questions about going back to work.
“What the country needs at this time is clarity and reassurance, but at the moment both are in pretty short supply,” he said.
Green Party MP Caroline Lucas tweeted: “Very worried that – even after this second statement from PM – people still don’t have answers on what safety measures to expect at work, nor clarity on transport or childcare. There must be no pressure to return to work unless and until those questions are answered & safety assured.”
Devastating critique of government’s handling of crisis by Greg Clark: strategy didn’t drive testing capacity – lack of testing capacity drove strategy.
Decision to abandon community testing meant we had a “self-imposed blindfold”, unable to collect vital data as virus spread
— Caroline Lucas (@CarolineLucas) May 11, 2020
On Monday, the government published a 51-page document entitled “Our Plan to Rebuild: The UK Government’s COVID-19 recovery strategy”, followed by a series of sector-by-sector documents offering guidance to employers and workers.
“It’s the common sense of the British people that has been so crucial in the whole of the UK in getting the [transmission rate] down,” Johnson said. “It’s by applying common sense that we’ll be successful in this second phase as well.”
The plan includes a staged undertaking to allow businesses to reopen, advice on avoiding public transport and wearing face coverings as well as a 14-day quarantine for most international arrivals.
Visitors from Ireland and France will be exempt from the quarantine, and it remains unclear if those coming to London on the Eurostar train from France, but which also has connections from across Europe, will be subject to quarantine.
While the clarification for business was broadly welcomed, the prime minister failed to convince the leaders of the United Kingdom’s constituent nations, with officials in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all saying they would stick to the previous lockdown rules.
While Johnson’s advice was that, from Wednesday, people would be allowed to travel unlimited distances by car, as long as they observed social distancing when they got to their destination and did not stay overnight, Wales and Scotland – which have had devolved powers since the end of the 1990s – said travel there remained for essential journeys only, and warned would-be English visitors that police would be enforcing lockdown restrictions.
8️⃣0️⃣% of COVID-19 fines issued over the bank holiday weekend were to people who had travelled to Dyfed-Powys from outside the area.
💭 Please remember that travel in Wales is still only for essential purposes.
— Heddlu Dyfed-Powys Police (@DyfedPowys) May 11, 2020
“The prime minister and his closest advisers knew back in March, even before the lockdown was imposed, that imposing it would be the easy part – but coming out of it would be the really complicated thing, and so it is proving,” said Al Jazeera’s Paul Brennan, reporting from London.
“There was something clear and simple and concrete about a simple message of ‘stay at home’. With the new arrangements that are being proposed, people are being given more freedom, they’re being asked to apply a degree of common sense, and that means there is a possibility of different levels of enforcement. On that basis, it means that people might do wrong – they actually find themselves bumping into people they shouldn’t be, down at parks, for example.”
A further 210 people had died after contracting coronavirus in the 24 hours to Sunday evening, Johnson said at the evening briefing, bringing the UK’s death toll to 32,065, according to government figures. It is the highest death toll of any European country, and second only to the United States.
At the briefing, Johnson did not take questions from the media, and instead responded to questions from members of the public, including one who asked for clarity on the earlier question of someone meeting family members who do not live with them. Johnson replied that, while social distancing was maintained, one member of one household could meet another member of the same family from another household – but anything more than a one-on-one would be “pushing it too far” at this stage.
He also called on employers to “be understanding” with workers facing difficulties returning to work due to a lack of private transport, or who were facing a lack of childcare. Schools remain mostly shut but the government is hoping they can reopen to reception, year one and year six classes next month, with the remaining years of primary school opening before the end of the summer term in July, in a move that came as a surprise to many teachers.
“The fact of the matter is the government has announced a date but hasn’t come forward with a plan about how schools will ensure that they’re safe for pupils and safe for staff to be in,” Patrick Roach, general secretary of teachers’ union NASUWT, told BBC Breakfast on Monday morning.
“And the prime minister said that it would be madness to risk a second spike in relation to transmission of the virus. Well, the profession has got very serious concerns about that announcement of June 1, whether indeed it is possible to achieve it, but also how to achieve that in a way which is safe for pupils and staff.”
The government on Monday did publish a document detailing suggestions for schools to keep children in small groups, staggering lunchtimes and increasing the frequency of cleaning.
Meanwhile, a parody of Johnson’s Sunday night address by comedian Matt Lucas had been watched nearly five million times on Twitter by Monday night.
— MATT LUCAS (@RealMattLucas) May 10, 2020
“So we are saying don’t go to work, go to work, don’t take public transport, go to work, don’t go to work, stay indoors, if you can work from home, go to work,” Lucas said in a tone strongly reminiscent of Johnson’s distinctive speech.
“And then, we will or won’t, something or other.”