Photo: Kirsty O'Connor/PA Wire/PA Images
Boris Johnson has said now is “not the time” to lift Britain’s coronavirus lockdown as he confirmed that a series of “careful” changes to the restrictive measures will instead kick in on Wednesday.
In a televised address to the nation, the prime minister unveiled the government’s new slogan urging the country to "Stay Alert to Control the Virus and Save Lives" – phrasing that ditches the "Stay At Home" message used since lockdown began in March.
But he made clear that only minor tweaks to the rules will take effect this week, with “unlimited amounts of outdoor exercise” allowed from Wednesday provided people stick to rules around social distancing.
Some primary school pupils could return by 1 June "at the earliest", he said, while there are plans for the "phased reopening" of shops at the same time.
Johnson also confirmed that the government is pressing ahead with plans to quarantine all those who arrive in the country by air.
But, in a cautious message, the prime minister stressed that the lifting of most restrictions will hinge on a new five-stage alert system using the "R" reproduction rate of the virus to determine whether a "second spike" can be avoided.
The system will be overseen by a new Joint Biosecurity Centre in government. Although the structure of the centre has not yet been revealed, it is being modelled on the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre, the unit closely linked to MI5 that sets the UK’s terrorist threat level.
Johnson said yesterday there will be five alert levels for Covid-19, determined primarily by R and the number of coronavirus cases, with the assessment determining the strictness of social distancing in the months ahead.
“Level one means the disease is no longer present in the UK and level five is the most critical, the kind of situation we could have had if the NHS had been overwhelmed,” Johnson said.
“Over the period of the lockdown we’ve been in level four and it’s thanks to your sacrifice we’re now in a position to begin to move in steps to level three.
“And as we go, everyone will have a role to play in keeping the R down: by staying alert and following the rules.”
Change of emphasis
Johnson said it was “not the time simply to end the lockdown this week”, instead unveiling what he called “the first careful steps to modify our measures”, beginning with a “change of emphasis” in guidance on working from home and going outdoors.
“We now need to stress that anyone who can’t work from home – for instance, those in construction or manufacturing – should be actively encouraged to go to work. And we want it to be safe for you to get to work so you should avoid public transport,
“So work from home if you can, but you should go to work if you can’t work from home.”
The new rules on exercise, which will from Wednesday replace a demand to limit trips outdoors to a once-per-day, one-hour stint, will “encourage people to take more and even unlimited amounts of outdoor exercise”, Johnson said.
“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 added.
But the prime minister warned: “You must obey the rules on social distancing and to enforce those rules we will increase the fines for the small minority who break them.”
Full details of the new rules will be revealed in guidance published by government today, and Johnson will take questions from MPs on the changes later today.
As well as this week's planned tweaks to the rules around exercising, dubbed phase one of the plan, Johnson set out a “conditional” vision for the next few weeks and months – including the staggered return of some schools.
“In step two, at the earliest by June 1, after half term, we believe we may be in a position to begin the phased reopening of shops and to get primary pupils back into schools – in stages, beginning with reception, year one and year six,” he said.
The prime minister also outlined an "ambition" for secondary school pupils facing exams next year to "get at least some time with their teachers before the holidays", promising further "detailed guidance" on how to safely make use of schools, shops and public transport in line with social distancing guidance.
Step three, he said, would come "at the earliest by July", depending on the scientific advice "and only if the numbers support it".
This will see a reopening of "at least some of the hospitality industry and other public places provided they’re safe and enforce social distancing".
But, bracing Britain for a long-haul in lockdown, Johnson said: "Throughout this period of the next two months, we will be driven not by mere hope or economic necessity.
“We’re going to be driven by the science, the data and public health.
“And I must stress again: that all of this is conditional. It all depends on a series of big ifs.”
And the prime minister stressed that lockdown measures could be re-imposed even after they have been eased if the data supports such a move.
He said of the tentative timeline: “If we can’t do it by those dates, and if the alert level won't allow it, we will simply wait and go on until we’ve got it right.”
In a bid to prevent “reinfection from abroad”, Johnson also confirmed he was “serving notice that it will be soon be the time, with transmissions significantly lower, to impose quarantine on people coming into this country by air”.
Such a move has already been criticised by the airline industry, which has warned it will further decimate carriers hit hard by the crisis.
But Johnson said the move would soon be effective, and was only possible because the infection rate in the UK itself had begun to fall.
In a final rallying cry, the prime minister told the country: “We will come back from this devilish illness.
“We will come back to health and robust health and though the UK will be changed by this experience I believe we can be stronger and better than ever before, more resilient, more innovative, more economically dynamic, but also more generous, and more sharing.”