(Bloomberg) -- Britons should wear face coverings in enclosed public spaces and prepare for the new normal to last a year or more, Boris Johnson’s government said as it published a road map for the national recovery from coronavirus.
With scientists confident levels of infection are falling across the country, the prime minister is attempting the balancing act of reopening the economy without causing a new spike of cases. The difficulty and dangers involved were reinforced by statistics showing construction workers -- one of the groups Johnson has urged to return to work -- have one of the highest rates of death from the virus.
“We have begun our descent from the peak of the epidemic,” Johnson told Parliament on Monday. “But our journey has reached the most perilous moment where a wrong move could be disastrous.”
The plan will see restrictions eased in phases. The immediate changes, taking effect May 13, are in three main areas: A return to work for those who need to leave their homes to do so; relaxation of rules on leaving the home for recreation; and an encouragement to wear face coverings in shops and on public transport to help stop the spread of the disease.
The government said the total number of Covid-related deaths had risen by 210, to a total of 32,065.
Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty told reporters Monday there is now “a little room for maneuver.” While the government’s plan to ease restrictions has “risks,” they are “proportionate” to the benefits, he said.
But Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labour Party, was scathing about the government’s approach. “What the country needs at this time is clarity and reassurance,” he told The House of Commons in response to Johnson. “At the moment, both are in pretty short supply.”
The Labour leader asked how people are supposed to go back to work without guidance on workplace safety, or while their children’s schools are still closed.
In the introduction to a 60-page document setting out the new guidance, Johnson said social distancing measures are likely to be needed for the foreseeable future, with people continuing to work from home where they can, until a vaccine or drug treatment can be found.
Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance said a focus of the government’s advice is on keeping the spread of the disease low as people reconnect by ensuring good hygiene: Washing hands and avoiding touching shared surfaces.
That explained why people are now allowed to meet single individuals outside the home, so long as they keep two meters apart.
Among the options under consideration for the future is the idea of allowing households to mix, potentially forming “bubbles” with another household. That would allow two households to share childcare, helping parents go back to work, the document said.
Government scientists are examining how that might work, but Vallance warned it is a “complicated question,” because of the risks of transmission chains starting up again between multiple households.
Over the longer term, it is likely different lockdown measures will be applied in different regions and nations of the U.K., the government said. Ministers in London will be ready to impose strict curbs on movement in a local area where a new outbreak is found.
“A mass vaccine or treatment may be more than a year away,” Johnson said, writing in the introduction to the document. “Our plan must countenance a situation where we are in this, together, for the long haul, even while doing all we can to avoid that outcome.”
Here’s How Boris Johnson’s New U.K. Lockdown Rules Will Work
The government warned the virus is “very unlikely” to be eradicated either in the U.K. or globally.
“I must ask the country to be patient with a continued disruption to our normal way of life,” Johnson said. “The worst possible outcome would be a return to the virus being out of control.”
Opposition politicians and labor unions accused the government of causing confusion with mixed messaging and putting the health of workers at risk. Labour’s Deputy Leader Angela Rayner encouraged employees to join a union to help protect their health and safety.
“Workers who can’t work from home were encouraged to go back to work -- but given no guidance on how to stay safe,” Rayner said in an email to party supporters. “This crisis has proved the strength of workers when we unite - whether you’re a construction worker or a care giver. It’s proved the power of having a trade union membership card in your pocket.”
In a televised address to the nation on Sunday evening, Johnson announced the “first careful steps” to easing lockdown rules in a three-point plan, starting this week with unlimited outdoor leisure time for sports such as golf and tennis, and allowing people to drive to parks and beaches in England. He told people who cannot work at home -- such as those in the manufacturing and construction sectors -- to return to their occupations.
The second phase of the plan would see primary schools and shops start to reopen from June 1, while cultural and sporting events would be able to take place behind closed doors for broadcast, the government said.
That potentially paves the way for the return of the U.K.’s soccer Premier League, whose are clubs are currently discussing a way to complete the current season, which still has 92 games remaining after the shutdown in March.
Step three may allow open-air cafes to resume trading in July.
The shift in tone follows weeks of pressure from members of Johnson’s Conservative Party pushing for a swift end to the lockdown. But while Johnson stressed his “careful” approach, it’s clear the government faces a battle to persuade businesses and workers it’s safe to resume operations.
(Updates with Johnson quote in third paragraph.)
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