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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (AP)
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (AP)

UK's lockdown could be eased from Monday, says Boris Johnson

  • As part of its plans to exit the lockdown, the government has already said it will roll out a mass program of tracking and tracing coronavirus cases
  • Johnson set a new goal to raise testing capacity to 200,000 a day by the end of the month, from about 108,000 now

The U.K.’s coronavirus lockdown is likely to begin to be eased from Monday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said, as he promised to announce details to the nation this weekend.

“We will want, if we possibly can, to get going with some of these measures on Monday," Johnson told Parliament. He said he will set out the next phase of the coronavirus strategy in a public statement on Sunday because it would be a “good thing" if people know what to expect before the changes come into operation the next day.

As part of its plans to exit the lockdown, the government has already said it will roll out a mass program of tracking and tracing coronavirus cases. Speaking in Parliament on Wednesday, Johnson set a new goal to raise testing capacity to 200,000 a day by the end of the month, from about 108,000 now.

The premier, who returned to Parliament for the first time since contracting coronavirus in March, is under pressure to get the U.K. economy moving again, amid criticism that he was slow to react to the crisis. The U.K. now has the highest death toll in Europe, after passing Italy’s total on Tuesday.

“What people want to see is a careful, sensible program attracting the widest possible support to continue to suppress the disease right down but to allow our economy to start up again," Johnson told the House of Commons on Wednesday.

Crucial Data

The prime minister said any changes will be made based on the latest scientific data, which will come through over the coming days.

Ministers are trying to find a route out of the lockdown without triggering a second spike of infections that could overwhelm health care systems. Though officials say the U.K. is past the peak, they’ve also warned any changes to current rules must ensure transmissions are kept under control given the absence of a vaccine.

Johnson’s spokesman, James Slack, said people should prepare for a “different kind of normal," and the government will adopt a phased approach to easing restrictions. The prime minister’s statement on Sunday will focus on social-distancing measures, he said.

“Everything is not going to be able to return to normal all at once," Slack told reporters on a conference call.

Too Slow

In Parliament, opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer said the government had been too slow in its response to the outbreak, and demanded Johnson explain how the U.K. had surpassed Italy to have the worst death toll in Europe.

Johnson accepted that a time will come for looking at whether his administration took the right decisions in response to the pandemic. He also argued that it was too early to compare the U.K. death toll to that of other countries.

There have been calls for an independent public inquiry, which minsters have not so far committed to.

As the government prepares to ease lockdown measures, it is also drawing up guidance for employers on how to safely resume work. Ministers circulated seven papers to businesses and trade unions on Sunday, setting out what steps firms will need to take when restrictions are eventually eased. They include social-distancing measures and stricter hygiene rules.

Backlash

That prompted a backlash from the Trade Unions Congress, which said the proposals wouldn’t protect workers, a theme that was taken up by Tory and Labour members of Parliament on Wednesday.

“The proposals themselves are wholly inadequate," said Andy McDonald, Labour’s employment rights spokesman. “No worker should have their life or the life of their loved ones risked simply by going to work."

Conservative MP Jane Stevenson said many people are “nervous" about returning to work, and fellow Tory Scott Benton said it’s “vital" people are protected. A third Tory, Dean Russell, asked for reassurance the government will work with appropriate health and safety authorities and ensure workplaces are safe, particularly complex ones like construction sites.

Business minister Paul Scully defended the proposals as an “early draft" and said there will be “plenty" of opportunities for employers and unions to give feedback.

“Where workers still feel unsafe, they can contact the Health and Safety Executive or their local authorities," he said.

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text. Only the headline has been changed.

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