Boris Johnson will on Sunday drop his “stay at home” message in favour of a new “stay alert” slogan as he prepares to set out his plan for a slow release of Britain’s lockdown and coax the country back to work.
But the change in the messaging was immediately disowned by Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, who said she was not consulted and that she had only learned about the new slogan in the Sunday newspapers.
“It is of course for him to decide what’s most appropriate for England, but given the critical point we are at in tackling the virus, #StayHomeSaveLives remains my clear message to Scotland at this stage,” she tweeted.
Ms Sturgeon warned last week that it would be “a potentially catastrophic mistake” to drop the stay at home message as she thought the rate of infection in Scotland might still be higher than other areas of the UK.
Robert Jenrick, communities secretary, was dispatched to the television studios to explain the new slogan. He suggested it was simultaneously intended to persuade people to go to work and stay at home.
“We want now to have a message which encourages people to go to work,” he told Sky’s Sophy Ridge. But later on the BBC’s Andrew Marr programme he said: “We want people to stay at home as much as possible.”
Asked whether the message was “woolly” and would confuse people, Mr Jenrick told Sky that people would be able to understand a broader message as the country moved to a new phase in the coronavirus fight.
“They will be able to understand this message which is that you should be staying at home as much as possible but when we do go to work and go about our business, we need to remain vigilant,” he said.
“We need to stay alert and that means things like respecting others, remaining two metres apart, washing your hands, following the social distancing guidelines because the virus continues to be prevalent.”
But in the clearest break yet in a united approach between the UK’s devolved governments and the Westminster administration Jeane Freeman, Scottish health secretary, reinforced Ms Sturgeon’s opposition to the change.
“If I am perfectly frank, I have no idea what ‘stay alert’ actually means,” she told the BBC’s Politics Scotland. “We’ve not been consulted on the possibility of any change, and as it has been reported, that is not a change that we would agree with.”
Mr Johnson will announce only a modest loosening of the restrictions introduced on March 23, instead setting out what Downing Street calls a “road map” for a gradual easing over many months.
The prime minister is expected to use a TV broadcast at 7pm on Sunday to announce a phased alert system — similar to the one used to assess terrorist risk — with five gradations of risk from coronavirus.
He will consult the cabinet and his emergency Cobra committee on Sunday. Number 10 officials admitted that part of his broadcast was recorded on Saturday, before the cabinet meeting, but that other parts of the broadcast would be recorded on Sunday.
The government strategy depends partly on whether scientists can effectively measure the R number — the average number of people infected by each person with coronavirus. Current estimates put it at between 0.5 and 0.9. An R below 1 means the outbreak is contracting and, if it stays low, the disease will eventually die out.
The modest changes to be announced by Mr Johnson are expected to include allowing people to take unlimited exercise and the reopening of garden centres. But most restrictions will stay in place until at least the end of May.
Full details of the “road map”, with an explanation of which restrictions are likely to be lifted at what stage of the pandemic, will be published on Monday, when Mr Johnson will make a statement to MPs.
Alok Sharma, business secretary, is also expected to announce on Monday a series of workplace safety guides, although trade unions are still demanding reassurances that people can go back to work safely.
Rishi Sunak, chancellor, will also set out next week how he intends to unwind the multibillion-pound job retention — or furlough — scheme, which is scheduled to end on June 30.
Mr Sunak has promised there will be no “cliff edge” and his officials are working over the weekend on a plan to phase out the scheme, including possibly making provision for furloughed staff to return to work part-time.