After nearly 7 weeks of lockdown, the Prime Minister sat at his desk in Downing Street to address the nation this evening. He acknowledged the difficulties the current restrictions were placing on society, and the deaths so far but also looked to the progress that was being made and reiterated that what was being done was working. After much anticipation, he laid out a changing message, and a proposed and conditional plan to try to open up the country in some form that would both address the virus and begin to open society.
Every point he laid out his conditional, and more details will be announced in Parliament tomorrow, published by the government, and questions will be answered from the public in the evening.
Mr Johnson began by reiterating the five tests that need to be met in order for the crisis and lockdown to be deemed at an end.
- Protect the NHS – there needs to be enough capacity within the NHS to handle the number of cases.
- There needs to be a sustained and consistent fall in the number of daily recorded deaths
- There needs to be a sustained and consistent fall in the number of infections and recorded cases
- There needs to be a testing programme and a supply of PPE to meet the demand
- No adjustments can result in an increase in the so-called R number and thus cause the second wave.
He further outlined the introduction of the new Covid alert level, similar to terrorism alert levels that are used currently. This will contain five levels with five being most severe and one being that the virus was not present in the UK at the present time. He said that we were currently at level four, and we were now able to begin to move down to level three thanks to the measures in place – but emphasised that the five tests had not been met completely and therefore restrictions would remain in some form or another.
From here he outlined how this would begin to change in the coming days, weeks, and months with a phased but conditional plan.
Phase 1 – Working and Personal Exercise
The advice remains for the majority of people to work from home unless they’re unable to do so. However, the slight changing message today was that if you’re unable to get work from home then you are actively encouraged to return to the workplace – the Prime Minister highlighted jobs such as manufacturing and construction as examples of where this might apply. He also said that those travelling to and from work should avoid public transport wherever possible and should think about driving, or more preferably cycling or walking instead.
He said that workplaces would receive guidance on how to become what he called “Covid secure” an apparent move to increase the confidence of workers who may be hesitant about returning to work with the virus perhaps oppressed but still present.
He also said he was serving notice that a quarantine would be imposed on people coming into the country by air from abroad. Note that an important exception to this was an agreement between Mr Johnson and French President Emanuel macron released just after Mr Johnson’s announcement that these quarantine measures, whenever they do come into existence, would not apply between France and the UK “at this stage”.
Furthermore, from Wednesday there will no longer be limits on the amount of all the type of daily exercise that you can take – e.g. you can sit in the sun in your local park or drive to an area you wish to exercise it. However, any exercise that is done must be done with members of your household, and despite speculation before his announcement, there was no sign of an easing of the rules on social distancing surrounding issues such as meeting friends/people outside your household. In fact, this was reinforced with fine for those that break social distancing due to increase.
Phase 2 – Schools and Shops
For the second phase of his outline, the Prime Minister hoped that “at the earliest by 1 June” some pupils in primary schools in England would be able to return to class, starting with the years of Reception, Year 1, and Year 6. He said that he was aiming for a situation where secondary pupils facing exams next year would have at least some contact time in schools before the summer holidays.
Within this phase too, he said that we could start to see the reopening of shops but only if this was supported by the science.
Phase 3 – Hospitality and Beyond
The final phase was sketched out to not happen earlier than 1st July and would involve some hospitality businesses and other public places beginning to reopen. This would likely include pubs, restaurants and (if the graphic on the screen is to be believed) cinemas too). However, just as with every other part of this conditional and phased out line it will only happen if the science agrees to it.
The day-to-day advice, therefore, remains largely unchanged. Although we may be passed the peak of the virus “coming down the mountain is often more dangerous” and therefore, if at any point the science or the numbers do not suggest that the next phase of the plan should be implemented, it won’t be, and we could even take backward steps to a more stringent form of lockdown.
What the Prime Minister attempted tonight, and will continue to attempt over the coming months, is a juggling act where the stakes are at there highest – more so than when Michael Davies nearly threw an axe at President Ronald Reagan. Exactly how his new outline will be received remains to be properly seen, but a lot of questions still remain about how practical a lot of the measures are and individual members of the public will no doubt have questions about how specific bits of the new guidance apply to them. Although detail is forthcoming in good time, some will be going to bed tonight knowing that they have work in potentially 12 hours or less and still unsure about how safe they will feel at work, and indeed how they might get there.
To be able to keep the virus at bay and restore “normal” life in some form is almost an impossibility, for as long as there is no vaccine or effective long-term treatment, the government is relying on its programme of test, track and trace to smother and contain any localised outbreaks. But here, questions remain about how effective that process can be when the government has struggled to reach its daily testing targets, and the turnaround on those tests completed is, realistically, too slow to be effective.
As we head into a new week, with ever so slightly modified restrictions it will take time for people to adjust to the new advice, especially in the cases of businesses trying to create “Covid secure” work environments. Indeed, although draft guidance was sent out last week to gauge opinion from businesses, unions reacted with consternation at what they saw as a lack of clarity on such an important issue.
Furthermore, the four-nation approach is starting to fray around the edges. It has been important to the government to keep a UK wide message on tackling the issue but now, ever so slightly, that message is starting to change between devolved governments. The Prime Minister signed off his speech tonight with the new triad – stay alert, control the virus, save lives. However, it is only going to be England adopting this message as the remaining three nations have decided to stick with “stay home”.
What was outlined tonight is merely a proposal, and it is conditional on the correct tests being met and the virus remaining suppressed. While for most, the basic message may not change, the creation of this new normal will no doubt raise questions for some – we can but wait for tomorrow’s additional details to arrive.
For now, continue to practice social distancing, and follow government advice.
Image Credit: 10 Downing Street Flickr