Boris Johnson will map out the UK’s phased exit from lockdown this weekend, with a two-pronged approach that will loosen some measures while tightening others, including tougher border controls.
The news came as the UK’s death toll from coronavirus passed 30,000. The Department of Health said 30,076 people had died from coronavirus, an increase of 649. Official figures suggest that the number of deaths is significantly higher.
The prime minister said on Wednesday he would set out his strategy for the “second phase” of the UK’s fight against coronavirus in a televised address on Sunday, adding the government would “get going” with some measures to revise the shutdown on Monday.
The initial relaxation of the lockdown is expected to be limited, such as allowing unlimited exercise and sunbathing in parks, while allowing some businesses to ramp up operations where social distancing can be observed, such as on construction sites.
The first wave of tweaks will cover the toughening up of other measures, such as the wearing of face masks on public transport and tougher checks at border.
A possible 14-day quarantine for all arrivals at UK borders will be extended to British citizens, although it may not be introduced immediately. Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, has stated the government is exploring new measures for foreign arrivals.
Those arriving at UK borders may be required to follow the same guidance as those within the country, such as being asked to install a Covid-19 tracking app when it becomes available. “Whatever is in place for UK citizens you can expect to be in place for those arriving in the UK,” said one official.
Another Whitehall official said that the initial easing would “talk about what you can do outside”, including exercise. “You want to make sure people understand what they can do and what they can’t. The message won’t be very different to the one on March 23 but with probably less of an emphasis on ‘stay at home’,” the individual said.
Further loosening of the lockdown is expected later in May, when the government can assess the impact of the initial changes on the reproduction rate of the virus and establish a robust regime for testing people suspected of having Covid-19 and tracing of their contacts.
While the initial changes to the lockdown will have a limited impact for businesses, the government is eager for some sectors to increase activity. Speaking at Wednesday’s Downing Street press conference, Robert Jenrick, the communities secretary, said that infrastructure and building work should commence again “wherever it is safe to do so”.
Following Mr Johnson’s speech on Sunday, the government will release a series of sectoral guides to inform more businesses on how to open up while following the social distancing guidelines.
Although much of the cabinet is eager for as much of the economy to reopen as soon as possible, those businesses where social distancing is more difficult to maintain will be closed for months to come, including the hospitality sector.
In its refreshed messaging on social distancing, the Johnson government will tell Britons that the measures are not being entirely relaxed. “You need to make sure people stay vigilant, aren’t complacent and still observe social distancing,” a government insider said.
The government will also adapt its messaging next week away from telling Britons primarily to stay at home. It has used the hashtag #StaySafeSaveLives on its official social media postings.
Mr Johnson also announced a new “ambition” of 200,000 daily tests by the end of May, despite the government’s failing to meet its current target of 100,000 for the fourth day in a row. On Wednesday, just 69,463 tests were performed across the UK.
The prime minister added that the government intended to “go higher” once the goal of 200,000 tests had been reached. Government insiders said this was a target for capacity of tests, as opposed to those being deployed.
The prime minister also gave his strongest hint yet that there would be an inquiry into the government’s handling of the crisis. The UK’s death toll has risen above other European countries — second only to the US.
“At every stage . . . we were governed by the overriding principal aims: to save lives and protect the NHS,” he told MPs. “There will be a time to look at what decisions we took and whether we could have taken different decisions.”