Downing Street has finally published a detailed plan for easing the Covid-19 lockdown in England amid widespread confusion following PM Boris Johnson’s address to the nation on Sunday, which was slammed for lacking clarity.
The 50-page document begins with a foreword from Johnson admitting that the UK has “paid a heavy price” during the coronavirus crisis, but touting the nation’s “success” at beating back the virus and urging the “utmost care” as restrictions are gradually eased.
Work from home (if you can)
According to the new plan, English workers “should continue to work from home… wherever possible.” Those who cannot work from home “should travel to work if their workplace is open.”
Confusion has arisen, however, as to which places of work will actually be open for workers to return to. While Johnson said businesses in engineering and construction will be “encouraged” to reopen on Monday, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said that this should not happen until Wednesday.
The published plan doesn’t make the situation entirely clear, saying sectors of the economy that “are allowed to be open should be open.” Workplaces are also advised to follow new “Covid-19 Secure” guidelines, which will be published sometime “this week.”
People are now advised that they “should aim to wear a face-covering in enclosed spaces where social distancing is not always possible,” the plan states.
The document notes that homemade cloth face-coverings can help reduce the risk of transmission and that the coverings “are not intended to help the wearer, but to protect against inadvertent transmission of the disease to others” if the wearer is asymptomatic.
Surgical masks, however, should “continue to be reserved” for healthcare workers and others who need them. The government has also published advice on how people can make their own face-coverings.
Back to school (for vulnerable kids)
The rate of infection still remains “too high” for schools to reopen to all pupils. Vulnerable children and children of essential workers are already permitted to attend school, and the document notes the “large social benefit” of that. Local authorities and schools “should therefore urge more children who would benefit from attending in person to do so.”
Paid childcare – nannies and childminders, for example – can now take place too, allowing more parents to return to work.
“Everybody” (and that includes critical workers) “should continue to avoid public transport wherever possible,” the government plan says. That means cycling, walking, or driving to work.
For those who don’t fancy cycling across London to work, public transport is active, and social distancing “must be followed rigorously.” Those efforts may be somewhat futile, however, as busy tubes aren’t the easiest place to stand two meters apart from fellow commuters. Footage of Londoners piling onto tube trains emerged on Monday – many wearing no masks – sparking concerns of a second spike in virus cases.
Social and Family Contact
Much recent speculation has centered around when people will be allowed to visit their families again. The new document does not provide clarity on this question, saying that the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (SAGE) has been asked to examine "when and how" regulations can be changed “to allow people to expand their household group to include one other household.” This, it said, would help reduce some of the most harmful side-effects of social isolation.
The government is also examining ways to allow “slightly larger groups” to gather for “small weddings.”
Outdoor spaces & activities
Rules on outdoor exercises and activities have been relaxed, given that the risk of infection outside is “significantly lower” than indoors if distancing is observed.
Now, in addition to being outdoors for exercise (with no limitations on how often), people can spend time outside in public spaces, provided that they do not meet up with “any more than one person” from another household.
It is now also possible for people to drive to outdoor open spaces “irrespective of distance,” so long as they follow safety guidelines while there. Playgrounds, outdoor gyms and ticketed outdoor leisure venues will still be off-limits, however.
Clinically vulnerable ‘not shielded’
People classed as “clinically vulnerable,” including those over 70 years old, pregnant women and people with pre-existing conditions, should continue to take care to “minimize contact” with others as much as possible, but they “do not need to be shielded,” the document says.
Those who are in “extremely” vulnerable groups, however, are “strongly advised to stay at home at all times and avoid any face-to-face contact.”
Enforcement and fines
“More stringent enforcement measures” for non-compliance are being looked at, including higher fines to reflect the “increased risk” as people return to work and school.
Speaking in the House of Commons on Monday afternoon, Johnson said fines in England will be £100 (or £50 if paid early), increased from £60 and £30. For repeat offenders, fines will rise to up to £3,600. He said he assumes people will use “good, solid British common sense” as the lockdown is lifted.
Asked in the Commons if he was “acting as prime minister of England” only, Johnson rejected the idea, saying he was giving good advice for all of the UK. He said there may need to be some divergence across different parts of the UK on easing measures, however.
The next steps of lockdown easing – including the phased return of schools for all pupils, reopening of non-essential retail, and permitting of cultural and sporting events – will depend on up-to-date assessments of risk, the plan says.