British Prime Minister Boris Johnson sought to assure the public Monday that the government is taking “baby steps” toward leading the country out of the lockdown prompted by the coronavirus pandemic.
Johnson answered the public and media questions during a daily briefing after critics called his new approach to COVID-19 vague and potentially dangerous. The United Kingdom has nearly 225,000 confirmed cases and 32,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data.
Earlier Monday, Johnson presented his three-step roadmap out of the lockdown to the House of Commons, after unveiling it to the public on Sunday. He said the government is changing the message from “Stay at Home” to “Stay Alert.” According to his plan, people who cannot work from home, such as workers in construction and manufacturing, should be encouraged to go to work. He also announced more freedom for outdoor recreation.
The other steps would follow “if and only if” the first phase proves to be successful, the prime minister vowed. Step two, potentially in June, and step three in July would include gradual reopening of shops, some encounters between students and teachers and possibly the reopening of some of the hospitality industry “if the numbers allow it,” he said.
Regional leaders of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales said Johnson’s plan could endanger people’s lives and kept their shutdowns mostly in place for the time being. They generally ruled out reopening the primary and secondary schools in June or July.
Britain’s opposition Labor Party leader, Keir Starmer, said the government's plan leaves "questions that need answering."
'Stay Alert' message defended
Johnson, who is the only world’s leader to have been hospitalized for COVID-19, defended his “Stay Alert” message, saying it still requires most people to stay at home. Those who have to leave home for work are encouraged to walk, drive or ride a bike rather than use public transport, which is now limiting the number of passengers.
Workplaces will receive detailed new COVID-19 safety guidelines by the end of the week, he said. Judging by the previous guidelines, new measures could include a ban on sharing a workspace between different shifts and obligatory wearing of protective gear. The government is also asking people to cover their faces in enclosed spaces where social distancing is difficult.
The government’s oal is to return elementary-school children to schools on June 1 for a month if possible, but in smaller classes. Secondary schools and colleges should prepare for face-to-face contact with students who have key exams next year, but most of their classes will still be remote learning from home.
Cultural and sporting events will be allowed to take place behind closed doors for broadcast from June 1.
Fines for breaking the guidelines will be increased. Violators could face charges of close to $4,000 to ensure compliance.
Johnson said a COVID alert system with danger levels 1 to 5 will be established to help adjust the safety measures as needed. Level 5 in red indicates that health care services are being overwhelmed, while Level 1 in green signals an end to COVID-19 presence in Britain. The country is presently at Level 4, which means the virus transmission is high or rising.
The prime minister said every step forward will be conditional on the coronavirus situation and taken with precaution.