LONDON (Reuters) - The coronavirus lockdown will not end yet, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Sunday, urging people to “stay alert” to the risks as he outlined plans to begin slowly easing measures that have closed much of the economy for seven weeks.
While his directions were for England, the government wants the United Kingdom’s other nations to take the same approach. But there were immediate divisions, with the leaders of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland saying they were sticking with the existing “stay-at-home” message.
In a televised address, Johnson announced a limited easing of restrictions, including allowing people to exercise outside more often and encouraging some people to return to work.
“This is not the time simply to end the lockdown,” he said. “Instead we are taking the first careful steps to modify our measures.”
The government has faced criticism over its handling of the pandemic and Johnson is wary of taking the brakes off too soon. Britain’s coronavirus death toll - 31,855 - is the second highest in the world, behind the United States.
With both the death rate and hospital admissions falling, it would be “madness” to allow a second spike in infections, he said.
But the decision to replace the government’s “stay-at-home” slogan, drummed into the public for weeks, was criticised by opposition parties who called the new “stay alert” message ambiguous.
Johnson said people should continue to work from home if they could, but those who cannot, such people working in construction and manufacturing, should be “actively encouraged to go to work”.
From Wednesday, people will be allowed to take unlimited amounts of outdoor exercise, he said, and can sit in the sun in their local park, drive to other destinations, and play sports with members of their own household.
Until now, people have been told only to exercise outdoors once a day and do so locally. Social distancing rules must still be obeyed, Johnson said, adding that fines would be increased for those who break them.
Johnson said he would set out further details to parliament on Monday, when a “roadmap” document will be published.
But opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer said Johnson had raised more questions than he had answered and there was now the prospect of different parts of the United Kingdom pulling in different directions.
“What the country wanted tonight was clarity and consensus, but we haven’t got either of those,” he said in a statement.
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the only modification she was making to lockdown measures was to allow people to exercise more.
“(That) is the only change that the Scottish government judges that it is safe to make right now without risking a rapid resurgence of the virus,” she told a news conference, adding she had asked the UK government not to use its “stay alert” advertising campaign in Scotland.
Britain’s economy - the world’s fifth largest - has been hammered by the pandemic and the lockdown measures.
Business groups welcomed Johnson’s statement but said companies would need more advice on how to get people back to work safely.
The government has faced steady questions from Labour and others on why the country was not locked down earlier, why it has struggled to deliver mass testing and why there have been shortages of protective equipment for medics and care workers.
Johnson himself was critically ill with COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus, last month.
The Sunday Times reported scientific advisers had told the government that deaths could exceed 100,000 by the end of the year if lockdown measures are relaxed too fast. As of Sunday, Britain had reported some 219,183 confirmed infections.
Johnson detailed an alert system ranging from ‘green’ level 1, to ‘red’ level 5, to allow the government to flag risks in different parts of England and to adapt restrictions where necessary. He said the country was on level 4 and could begin to move to level 3.
At the earliest by June 1, the government may be able to begin the phased reopening of shops and get some younger pupils back into schools, he said, adding by July at the earliest, there could be an opening of some of the hospitality industry and other public places if they enforce social distancing.
Britain will soon also begin to quarantine people arriving into the country by air, Johnson said.
“Throughout this period of the next two months we will be driven not by mere hope or economic necessity. We are going to be driven by the science, the data and public health,” he said.
“We will be monitoring our progress locally, regionally, and nationally and if there are outbreaks, if there are problems, we will not hesitate to put on the brakes.”
Reporting by Kylie MacLellan and Elizabeth Piper; Additional reporting by Estelle Shirbon; Editing by Catherine Evans, Frances Kerry and Lisa Shumaker