Boris Johnson's lockdown release condemned as divisive, confusing and vague

Boris Johnson urged the country to take its first tentative steps out of lockdown this week in an address to the nation that was immediately condemned as being divisive, confusing and vague.

In a speech from Downing Street, Johnson said if the circumstances were right, schools in England and some shops might be able to open next month, and the government was “actively encouraging” people to return to work if they cannot do so from home.

But he stressed that this was “not the time simply to end the lockdown” and that he intended to take a cautious approach guided by the science, otherwise a second deadly wave of the “devilish” virus would take hold.

But his remarks drew criticism and concern from across the political spectrum – and his decision to drop the “stay at home” message in favour of advice to “stay alert” was met with a chorus of disapproval from the leaders of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.

Though he gave no details, Johnson explained his blueprint for a gradual easing of the coronavirus lockdown in England could see primary schools, shops and nurseries partially reopening from 1 June, while some cafes or restaurants with outdoor space, plus places or worship and socially distanced cinemas, could return to business from July.


He also said more outdoor activity will be allowed in England from this Wednesday, including unlimited exercise, trips to beauty spots such as beaches and national parks, and sport such as angling, golf and tennis, as long as they are kept to household groups.

People will also be allowed to meet one other member of another household at a time outdoors, either while exercising or sitting down, according to government sources.

Johnson said he would only start reopening the economy if the pandemic is clearly under control, but his call for people to get back to their workplaces led to immediate condemnation from trade unions worried about the safety of their work.

Keir Starmer said the prime minister “appears to be effectively telling millions of people to go back to work tomorrow” without the necessary guidance.

“But we haven’t got the guidelines, and we don’t know how it’s going to work with public transport so there’s a huge number of questions arising out of this,” the Labour leader added.

Workers were urged not to use public transport where possible, but cars, walking or bikes instead – in advice that will be impossible to follow for many.


The prime minister’s decision to loosen the lockdown also led to a breakdown in the UK’s “four nation” approach to dealing with coronavirus, with the leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland refusing to replace the “stay home” messaging” with Johnson’s new “stay alert” slogan.

Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister of Scotland, said dropping the “stay home” message could have “catastrophic” consequences north of the border and ordered Scots to follow different advice on outdoors exercise.

This will be unlimited but there must be “no sunbathing, picnics or barbecues”, she said, in contrast to Johnson’s new advice. She said the new “stay alert” message was too “vague and imprecise” to be used.

Sturgeon told BBC Scotland Johnson needed to be much clearer that his proposed easing of the lockdown only related to England.


Mark Drakeford, first minister of Wales, emphasised that the country’s stay-at-home advice “has not changed”. He announced on Friday that Wales will allow more frequent exercise and the opening of garden centres, but said schools will not reopen from 1 June.

Johnson will set out further details of his approach to parliament on Monday, publishing a document that will set out a roadmap for reopening the economy. This is likely to include ambitions for:

  • Shops and primary schools to return from 1 June, starting with reception, year one and year six. It is understood he would also want nurseries and other early years providers to return at the earliest opportunity.

  • Secondary school pupils sitting exams next year to be given an opportunity to see their teachers before the end of term but there are no plans for other secondary pupils to return to school before the next school year.

  • Some of the hospitality industry and other public places to reopen “provided they are safe and enforce social distancing”. He was not specific about which hospitality venues could reopen but it is understood that it means a return for cafes and restaurants with outdoor space that can enforce social distancing, rather than pubs, even ones with beer gardens.

  • People in England to be allowed to sit in parks within their household groups, to drive to beauty spots for walks and take unlimited amounts of outdoor exercise. People will be able to meet and sit down with a single other person outdoors as long as they stay two metres apart. Angling, swimming in lakes or rivers, tennis and golf will all be allowed if people are sticking to their household groups.

  • The speech omitted guidance on the wearing of face masks but this is likely to be included in Monday’s document, advising non-medical masks in enclosed public places such as public transport.

  • It also had no detail on when people may be able to meet with friends and family in groups again.

Stressing that the UK would take a careful approach, he said these were the first of “slow and gradual changes” but people would face higher fines for breaking the rules and the government could reimpose stricter rules if the virus starts to spread uncontrollably again. Fines could start at £100 and double for further offences, up to a maximum of £3,200.

“If there are outbreaks, if there are problems, we will not hesitate to put on the brakes,” he said.

Another tightening of the rules will involve quarantining people coming to the UK from abroad for 14 days, although this might only apply to travel by plane.

“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,” Johnson said.

No 10 also suggested there may be no quarantine for people travelling from France after a phone call with French president Emmanuel Macron. “No quarantine measures would apply to travellers coming from France at this stage; any measures on either side would be taken in a concerted and reciprocal manner,” a spokesman said.

European lockdown

Johnson’s move towards the “stay alert” message signals the government’s intention to try to get people back to work, rather than staying at home in all circumstances.

But trade unions have not agreed new workplace guidance and Unison general secretary Dave Prentis said: “The return to work must be safe. There must be no cutting corners, no playing fast and loose with employees’ safety. The economy is important, but lives are too.”

Len McCluskey, the general secretary of Unite, also raised concerns about people heading back to work before mandatory safety rules are agreed. “This has not been thought through and the failure to do so places working people in danger.”

Johnson explained the government would adopt a new “five-level” threat system to describe the risk the UK faces from coronavirus, saying the UK was currently still at the second most serious level of four. The “Covid Alert System” would be run by a new Joint Biosecurity Centre, Johnson added.

He added: “We have a route, and we have a plan, and everyone in government has the all-consuming pressure and challenge to save lives, restore livelihoods and gradually restore the freedoms that we need.”


Rowena Mason Deputy political editor

The GuardianTramp

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