LONDON — Prime Minister Boris Johnson unveiled his roadmap for getting Britain out of the coronavirus lockdown on Sunday, even as the country’s death toll continued to rise in Europe’s deadliest outbreak. Nearly 32,000 people in the U.K. have now died in the pandemic.
In a televised address, Johnson, who battled coronavirus himself, outlined a series of staggered steps for exiting the lockdown that he said would be “conditional” on how diligently the public follows the government’s advice.
With the death rate and hospital admissions coming down, Johnson said it would be “madness” to throw away that achievement by allowing a second spike. At the same time, he said the lockdown measures have come at a colossal cost to Britain’s way of life.
“Millions of people are both fearful of this terrible disease, but at the same time also fearful of what this long period of enforced inactivity will do to their livelihoods and their mental and physical wellbeing,” the prime minister added.
In what he called “a sense of a way ahead,” Johnson said he will be establishing a new five-level alert system that will help detect local flare-ups and give a national picture of coronavirus spread.
The alert level will tell the nation how tough social distancing measures need to be, he said.
Over the seven-week lockdown, Johnson said, the U.K. has been in level 4, and is now in a position to move to level 3.
But he cautioned: “This is not the time to simply end the lockdown this week; instead, we are taking the first careful steps to modify our measures.”
Starting this week, he said anyone who can’t work from home — like those in construction or manufacturing — should be actively encouraged to go back to work as new guidelines will be established for employers to make workplaces COVID-secure.
Starting on Wednesday, the government is also allowing unlimited outdoor exercise while obeying social distancing rules, with increased fines for those who don’t.
By June 1, at the earliest, the phased re-opening of shops is planned, and primary school students will be allowed to return to their schools in phases.
By July, Johnson said he hoped to re-open “at least some” of the hospitality industry and other public places.
Johnson’s message came after many of his fellow countrymen flocked to parks and public areas over the weekend, taking advantage of the sunshine as police said they were “fighting a losing battle” trying to enforce social distancing guidelines.
“If there are problems, we won’t hesitate to put on the breaks,” he warned Sunday. “We have been through the initial peak, but it’s coming down the mountain that is often more dangerous.”
Ahead of his speech, there was a change in the government’s key, central message in its fight against coronavirus from “stay at home” to “stay alert,” something critics have already derided as being ambiguous and confusing for the general public.
Opposition members, including shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth, have called for absolute clarity from Johnson, saying there is “no room for nuance” during the pandemic.
Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of Scotland’s parliament, said she learned of new slogan from newspapers, adding that the plea to stay home remains “her clear message” to Scotland at this stage. Her comments were echoed by politicians in Wales.
Johnson’s Community Secretary Robert Jenrick defended the new mantra on Sunday, telling the U.K.’s Sky News that it was right to “update and broaden” the message to the public now that the country is past the peak of the epidemic. He said the public needs to have a broader message “to slowly and cautiously restart the economy and the country.”