Boris Johnson has set out a three-stage plan to get Britain back to work, abandoning his “stay at home” message and holding out the prospect that schools and parts of the economy could start to reopen before the summer.
In a sharp change of tone, Mr Johnson said in a televised address that, while people should continue to work at home if possible, he wanted those in jobs such as construction and manufacturing to go back to work this week.
Mr Johnson’s shift to a new slogan “stay alert” was strongly criticised by leaders in Scotland and Wales, who complained they had not been consulted. Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, said she did not know what the slogan meant.
Keir Starmer, Labour party leader, said: “This statement raises more questions than it answers, and we see 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.
“What the country wanted tonight was clarity and consensus, but we haven’t got either of those.”
Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, tweeted: “The government still hasn’t published guidance on how workers will be kept safe. So how can the PM — with 12 hours’ notice — tell people to go back to sites and factories? It’s a recipe for chaos.”
While Scotland and Wales will persist with a tough “stay at home” message, Mr Johnson told the cabinet that he wanted to start easing the lockdown this week, with two further phases of liberalisation to follow if Covid-19 remained under tight control.
“There is an important underlying message that those that can go to work now should, provided they can maintain social distancing,” said one cabinet minister, arguing that a conditional timetable for lifting the lockdown would help business plan ahead.
Mr Johnson said most restrictions would remain in place for now, but that from this Wednesday there would be some modest relaxation of the rules in what he said was the first stage of an easing of restrictions, linked to progress in fighting the virus.
“We want to encourage people to take more and even unlimited amounts of outdoor exercise,” he said. “You can sit in the sun in your local park, you can drive to other destinations, you can even play sports but only with members of your own household.”
These rules applied only in England; government officials said people could drive to national parks or the beach, provided they maintained 2m distance.
“In step two — at the earliest by June 1 — after half term — we believe we may be in a position to begin the phased reopening of shops and to get primary pupils back into schools, in stages, beginning with reception, Year 1 and Year 6,” the prime minister said.
Mr Johnson said that the “ambition” was that Year 10 or Year 12 pupils facing exams next year should have at least some time with their teachers before the summer holidays.
He said a third step would happen in July at the earliest — if scientific advice suggested it was safe. “We will hope to reopen at least some of the hospitality industry and other public places, provided they are safe and enforce social distancing,” he said.
Government officials said that cafés in parks or restaurants with open terraces might be able to open if they could maintain distancing measures, but one added: “I’m afraid that pubs will have to wait a little bit longer.”
Mr Johnson used his address to urge people working in industries that had not been closed to return to work immediately: “We now need to stress that anyone who can’t work from home, for instance those in construction or manufacturing, should be actively encouraged to go to work.”
New guidelines on workplace safety — the subject of fierce negotiation between unions and business leaders — are expected to be published this week to explain how work can continue in an era of social distancing.
Mr Johnson said public transport use would be limited by social distancing.
To assess whether it was appropriate to lift the lockdown at any given moment, a new “Covid alert system” run by a joint biosecurity centre would assess the state of the virus at any given point, with a warning system from one to five.
“That Covid alert level will tell us how tough we have to be in our social distancing measures — the lower the level the fewer the measures,” Mr Johnson said.
“Level one means the disease is no longer present in the UK and level five is the most critical — the kind of situation we could have had if the NHS had been overwhelmed.
“Over the period of the lockdown we have been in level four, and it is thanks to your sacrifice we are now in a position to begin to move in steps to level three.”
Mr Johnson said Britain would need a “world-beating system for testing potential victims” to keep a track of the disease, but admitted more work needed to be done to get daily testing up to the “hundreds of thousands” level.
Meanwhile, in a blow to the aviation sector, Mr Johnson said: “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.”