Confusion reigns as UK Prime Minister Johnson announced phased plan to ease England out of lockdown

The prime minister announced new coronavirus guidance on Sunday night.

May 11, 2020, 5:59 AM

LONDON -- The U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced modifications to the lockdown currently in place across the country and a phased plan to reopen society on Sunday night, but the measures were roundly criticized as lacking clarity.

In a televised address to the nation on Sunday evening, Johnson announced that the formal government slogan had changed to “Stay Alert, Control the Virus, Save Lives,” from the previous guidance which said that people must stay at home to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus and protect the National Health Service (NHS).

PHOTO: LONDON, ENGLAND - In this handout image provided by No 10 Downing Street, Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson records a televised message to the nation released on May 10, 2020 in London, England.
LONDON, ENGLAND - In this handout image provided by No 10 Downing Street, Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson records a televised message to the nation released on May 10, 2020 in London, England. The Prime Minister announced the next stage in easing lockdown measures intended to curb the spread of Covid-19. (Photo by No 10 Downing Street via Getty Images)
Handout/Getty Images

While the rules on social distancing remain in place, from this Wednesday members of the public will be allowed to leave the house for unlimited amounts of exercise, sunbathe and drive to other destinations. Fines for those who break the measures, which are still limited to spending time with members of your own household, will be increased, he said.

The prime minister announced a new COVID Alert System to track the coronavirus R number -- the rate at which the virus reproduces -- that will determine how the country phases out of lockdown. The R number is now between 0.5 and 0.9 in the U.K., he said. If the data supports it, by June at the earliest some schools could open, and by July, pending “further scientific advice,” the government hope that areas of the hospitality industry may be able to reopen.

The prime minister announced that new plans to quarantine travelers entering the U.K. would be introduced “soon.” The U.K. has thus far been one of the few countries in the world to remain open for foreign travel.

Johnson will be laying out the plans in more detail in the House of Commons today. But the government’s messaging has been criticized by opposition lawmakers as sowing a sense of confusion for ordinary citizens and business, after a week in which headlines in the national press indicated that Johnson’s address would herald a far more substantive lift to the lockdown measures currently in place.

The prime minister said that he had “consulted across the political spectrum” and “all four nations of the U.K.,” but the measures were criticized as in effect applying to England alone. The national governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have indicated they will continue to adhere to the previous official advice, of “Stay at Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives,” despite the modifications announced by Johnson.

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Previously, people had been told to “work from home if you can, and only go to work if you must,” he said, but that guidance has now changed.

“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,” Johnson said. “And we want it to be safe for you to get to work. So you should avoid public transport if at all possible – because we must and will maintain social distancing, and capacity will therefore be limited.”

“So work from home if you can, but you should go to work if you can’t work from home,” he added.

“I think what the country really wanted tonight was clarity and a real sense of consensus, and I don’t think we’ve got either,” Sir Keir Starmer, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, said after the televised address. “The basic message, ‘stay alert,’ just isn’t clear enough, and the Prime Minister’s statement raises as many questions as it answers.”

The U.K. is the second worst affected country in the world by the pandemic, after the U.S., with 31,930 deaths, according to the latest data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

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