Despite high infection rate, UK looks to ease lockdown next week
Boris Johnson says people want a ‘careful, sensible programme’ to come out of the Covid-19 lockdown, but unions say it’s too soon
London — The UK’s coronavirus lockdown is likely to begin to be eased from Monday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said, as he promised to announce details to the nation this weekend.
“We will want, if we possibly can, to get going with some of these measures on Monday,” Johnson told parliament. He said he will set out the next phase of the Covid-19 strategy in a public statement on Sunday because it would be a “good thing” if people knew what to expect before the changes came in to operation the next day.
As part of its plans to exit the lockdown, the government has already said it will roll out a mass programme of tracking and tracing coronavirus cases. Speaking in parliament on Wednesday, Johnson set a new goal to raise testing capacity to 200,000 a day by the end of the month, from about 108,000 now.
Johnson, who returned to parliament for the first time since contracting the coronavirus in March, is under pressure to get the UK economy moving again, amid criticism that he was slow to react to the crisis. The UK now has the highest death toll in Europe, after passing Italy’s total on Tuesday.
“What people want to see is a careful, sensible programme attracting the widest possible support to continue to suppress the disease right down, but to allow our economy to start up again,” Johnson told the House of Commons on Wednesday.
The prime minister said any changes will be made based on the latest scientific data, which will come through over the coming days.
Ministers are trying to find a route out of the lockdown without triggering a second spike of infections that could overwhelm healthcare systems. Though officials say the UK is past the peak, they’ve also warned that any changes to social-distancing measures must ensure the transmissions are kept under control in the absence of a vaccine.
In parliament, opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer said the government had been too slow in its response to the outbreak, and demanded that Johnson explain how the UK has surpassed Italy to have the worst death toll in Europe.
Johnson accepted that a time will come for looking at whether his administration took the right decisions in response to the pandemic. Johnson also argued that it was too early to compare the UK death toll to that of other countries.
There have been calls for an independent public inquiry, which minsters have not so far committed to launching.
As the government prepares to ease lockdown measures, it’s also drawing up guidance for employers on how to safely resume work. Ministers circulated seven papers to businesses and trade unions on Sunday, outlining steps to be taken including stricter hygiene and social-distancing in workplaces, when restrictions are eventually eased.
It also prompted a backlash from the Trade Unions Congress, which said the proposals wouldn’t protect workers, a theme that was taken up by Tory and Labour MPs on Wednesday.
“The proposals themselves are wholly inadequate,” the opposition Labour Party’s employment rights spokesperson, Andy McDonald, said. “No worker should have their life or the life of their loved ones risked simply by going to work.”
Conservative MP Jane Stevenson said many people are “nervous” about returning to work, and fellow Tory Scott Benton said it’s “vital” people are protected. A third Tory, Dean Russell, asked for reassurance that the government would work with the appropriate health and safety authorities and ensure that workplaces are safe, particularly complex ones such as construction sites.
Business minister Paul Scully defended the proposals as an “early draft”. He said there will be “plenty” of opportunities for employers and unions to give feedback. “Where workers still feel unsafe, they can contact the health and safety executive or their local authorities.”