The Prime Minister batted back criticism in Parliament on Monday, as his government unveiled its 50-page plan to creep out of lockdown and “rebuild the UK for a world with COVID-19.”
But as the country enters its eighth week under unprecedented social and economic restrictions, his call sparked confusion among many Brits about when and how they can go to work, leave their homes, or socialize.
And Johnson’s deputy Dominic Raab muddied the waters further in a round of media interviews on Monday morning when he gave conflicting statements around the size and nature of gatherings that would be permitted between people from different households.
“What the country needs at this time is clarity and reassurance and at the moment both are in pretty short supply,” opposition leader Keir Starmer told Johnson in the House of Commons on Monday. “At the heart of the problem it seems that the Prime Minister made a statement last night before the plan was written, or at least finalized.”
Johnson told Parliament that as the UK starts to move towards re-opening, “our journey has reached the most perilous moment where a wrong move could be disastrous.” He said that at this stage the government “can go no further than to announce the first careful modification of our measures.”
From Wednesday, people would be allowed to take unlimited outdoor exercise instead of just one trip per day, and would be allowed to sit in parks, drive to other destinations and play sports — but only with members of their households — Johnson said. People will also be able to meet one member of another household outdoors, as long as they maintain social distancing.
The next step in the plan, which will come no earlier than June 1, will include reopening schools for younger students, and a third stage planned for July will involve reopening non-essential businesses and hospitality and holding events behind closed doors.
But the government warned: “It is clear that the only feasible long-term solution lies with a vaccine or drug-based treatment.” It said the plan was “not a quick return to ‘normality.’ Nor does it lay out an easy answer. And, inevitably, parts of this plan will adapt as we learn more about the virus.”
Even in the third stage, the document warned, some “venues which are, by design, crowded and where it may prove difficult to enact distancing” may still not be able to safely re-open.
It is a sobering assessment that shows a return to ordinary life may be some way off — and may never come for some.
‘Stay alert’ slogan proves controversial
Johnson defended his new “Stay alert, control the virus, save lives” slogan in Parliament as a “valid” piece of advice, despite criticism from opposition MPs and leaders in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Scottish Nationalist Party leader Ian Blackford said “it is obvious that the last 24 hours has spread confusion … mixed messaging risks lives.”
Johnson had unveiled the messaging along with an alert system ranging from level 1 to 5 to help determine how quickly measures can be relaxed without triggering a second wave of infections.
It was quickly disregarded by leaders in the UK’s other nations. “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,” Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon tweeted, before warning people not to travel from England to Scotland unless they have a valid reason.
Her Welsh counterpart, Mark Drakeford, said that Wales would also not be dropping the “stay at home” message, while Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster said she will continue to promote the “stay at home” message, according to the PA Media.
Defending his plan on Monday, Johnson accepted that further lockdown rules might be re-applied or lifted for some parts of the UK but not others. “If the data goes the wrong way, if the alert level begins to rise, we will have no hesitation in putting on the brakes and delaying or reintroducing measures locally, regionally, or nationally,” he said.
“If everyone stays alert and follows the rules, we can control the virus, keep the rate of infection down and keep the number of infections down,” Johnson added.
But in a televised response on Monday evening, Labour leader Starmer said the plans were light on details, and criticized the Prime Minister for not confirming “when we can see our loved ones again.”
“Many of us have questions that need answering,” Starmer said. “How can we be sure our workplaces are now safe to return to? How do our police enforce these rules? And why our some parts of the United Kingdom now on a different path to others?”
Raab had earlier tried and failed to smooth over the confusion. He claimed in a radio interview with the BBC that the measures had been “clear,” but deviated on some of the detail given by Johnson.
Raab refused to answer whether employees would be able to walk out of work if they felt insecure, saying “it’s very difficult to answer that hypothetically.”
“Employers have a duty on them to provide Covid-secure settings,” he added. Responding to a question over whether the measures create a “two-tier” system where “lower earners take the risk of catching the virus and spreading it,” Raab said that was “not right.”
Business leaders and labor unions nonetheless demanded clarity. Len McCluskey, Secretary-General of Britain’s second-largest trade union Unite said “millions of people” would be “dumbfounded” by the government’s plan.
“The Prime Minister’s response last night was both confusing and disbelieving,” McCluskey told BBC radio. “Listening to Dominic Raab, I’m wondering why we didn’t wait until we’ve seen the 50-page document and the guidelines that are about to come out before there was any indication about going back to work.”
Raab also confirmed that exceptions to the quarantine to include at least some arrivals from France and transporting freight.
The Chief Executive of the UK Airport Operators Association, Karen Dee, warned that the introduction of a quarantine period could have a “devastating impact” on the UK aviation industry. “Quarantine would not only have a devastating impact on the UK aviation industry, but also on the wider economy … if the Government believes quarantine is medically necessary, then it should be applied on a selective basis following the science, there should be a clear exit strategy and the economic impact on key sectors should be mitigated,” Dee said.
CNN’s Max Ramsay, Ivana Kottasova and Simon Cullen in London contributed reporting.