Boris Johnson’s new plans for a gradual easing of the lockdown could see English primary schools, shops and nurseries partially reopening from June, some cafes or restaurants back from July, and more outdoor activity allowed from Wednesday.
In an address to the nation, the prime minister said there was “no immediate end to the lockdown” as people will still be required to stay at home most of the time and to keep within their own household groups.
He stressed that he would be taking a cautious approach guided by the science, after a chorus of criticism from the leaders of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales over his decision to drop the “stay at home” message in favour of advice to “stay alert”.
However, Johnson said his ambition was to get shops and primary schools back from 1 June, starting with reception, year 1 and year 6. It is understood that he would also want nurseries and other early years providers to return at the earliest opportunity.
Secondary school pupils sitting exams next year would be given an opportunity to see their teachers before the end of term but there are no plans for other secondary pupils to return to school before the next school year.
The next step after that, at the earliest by July, would be an aim to “reopen at least some of the hospitality industry and other public places, provided they are safe and enforce social distancing”. He was not specific about which hospitality venues could reopen, but it is understood that it means a return for cafes and restaurants with outdoor space that can enforce social distancing, rather than pubs, even ones with beer gardens.
More immediately, people in England will be allowed to sit in parks within their household groups, to drive to beauty spots for walks, and to take unlimited amounts of outdoor exercise. People will be able to meet and sit down with a single other person from another household outdoors as long as they stay two metres apart. Angling, swimming in lakes or rivers, tennis and golf will all be allowed if people are sticking to their household groups.
The outdoor rules will differ in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, with Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish first minister, saying Scots will be allowed unlimited exercise from Monday, but no sunbathing, picnics or barbecues – unlike the rules for England.
Johnson also said people who cannot work at home will now be “actively encouraged” to get back to work with social distancing where possible, an announcement that prompted trade unions to raise concerns about employee safety.
Stressing that the UK would take a cautious approach, he said these were the first of “slow and gradual changes” but people would face higher fines for breaking the rules and the government could reimpose stricter rules if the virus starts to spread uncontrollably again. Fines could start at £100 and double for further offences, up to a maximum of £3,200.
“If there are outbreaks, if there are problems, we will not hesitate to put on the brakes,” he said.
One tightening of the rules will involve quarantining people coming to the UK from abroad for 14 days, although this might apply only to air travel. “To prevent reinfection from abroad, I am serving notice that it will soon be the time – with transmission significantly lower – to impose quarantine on people coming into this country by air,” Johnson said.
A joint statement issued later by Johnson and the French president, Emmanuel Macron, said the quarantine would not apply to those travelling between the two countries “at this stage”.
Johnson set out his new approach after a chorus of criticism about his decision to ditch the government’s “stay at home” slogan in favour of new advice to “stay alert”. Opposition politicians warned that it was confusing the message about whether the lockdown is over.
In a definitive fracturing of the UK’s “four nation” approach, Sturgeon said moving away from the “stay at home” advice would be “catastrophic” for Scotland and asked for it not to be deployed north of the border. The leaders of Wales and Northern Ireland also said they wanted to stick with the “stay at home” message.
The GMB was among the unions that accused the prime minister of making “contradictory and confusing” statements. Its acting general secretary, John Philips, said: “More mixed messages from the government – saying there’s no end to lockdown, but asking everyone to go back to work.”
Johnson said those travelling to work should do so by car, walking or bicycle “if possible”, but that public transport operators, like workplaces, would be following “Covid-secure standards”.
The Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) said the shift in the government’s “stay at home message” could unleash a surge in passengers on the railways and tubes “with potentially lethal consequences”. They advised members not to work if they felt unsafe.
Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, said the prime minister’s statement asked more questions than it answered, raising the prospect of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland “pulling in different directions”.
“The prime minister appears to be effectively telling millions of people to go back to work without a clear plan for safety or clear guidance as to how to get there without using public transport,” he said. “What the country wanted tonight was clarity and consensus, but we haven’t got either of those.”
Johnson said the success of the first steps in the easing the lockdown “depends on all of us – the entire country – to follow the advice, to observe the social distancing and to keep that R [number] down. “It would be madness now to throw away that achievement by allowing a second spike.”
He also explained that the government would adopt a new “five-level” threat system to describe the risk the UK faces from coronavirus, saying the UK was currently still at the second most serious level, four.