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Johnson tentatively eases UK's lockdown measures

By Angus McNeice in London | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2020-05-11 04:03

United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson has encouraged some people to return to work from Monday, in the first phase of a three-step plan to ease lockdown measures that have been in place since late March to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Johnson said employees who are not able to perform their roles from home, including those in the construction and manufacturing industries, may return to work starting this week. But he said people should avoid public transport, if possible, and use cars, bicycles, or walk to workplaces.

He also said members of the same household can now sunbathe in parks and play sports together, and are permitted unlimited outdoor exercise. People in the UK had previously been restricted to leaving their homes once a day for exercise.

During a national address delivered on Sunday evening, the prime minister said the second step in the government's "roadmap for reopening society" will involve the reopening of shops in phases from June 1, and students will return to school in stages. Johnson said that businesses in the hospitality industry could resume operations in July under step three of the plan.

He said that the whole plan is conditional on the rate of infection, and noted that lockdown measures will once again tighten if the epidemic gathers pace.

"If there are outbreaks, if there are problems, we will not hesitate to put on the brakes," Johnson said. "This is not the time simply to end the lockdown. Instead, we are taking the first careful steps to modify our measures."

The prime minister said the government needs to significantly increase testing in the UK, where slightly more than 1.3 million people have been tested since the outbreak began.

"We have made fast progress on testing, but there is so much more to do now," he said. "If we are to control this virus, we must have a world-beating system for testing potential victims and for tracing their contacts, so that, all told, we are testing literally hundreds of thousands of people every day."

Johnson described the pandemic as the "most vicious threat this country has faced" in his lifetime, and said the lockdown measures put in place in late March helped avoid up to 500,000 deaths.

As of Saturday, 31,855 people with COVID-19 disease had died in the UK – the largest number of any nation in Europe. Some 219,183 have tested positive for the virus. Johnson said the infection rate is decreasing in the UK and that the country is now "past the peak" of the outbreak.

On Sunday the UK government introduced a five-level COVID-19 alert system, where level 1 means the disease is no longer present in the UK, and level 5 means the National Health Service is overwhelmed.

Johnson said the country is currently on level 4 and is approaching level 3.

Johnson's administration has begun to shift its messaging as the infection rate has decreased. Government departments are now promoting the slogan "stay alert, control the virus, save lives" instead of "stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives".

Leaders in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland have rejected the change, arguing that it has caused confusion among the public.

Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labour Party, criticized the government's approach following Johnson's speech on Sunday.

"The basic messaging isn't clear enough and there is a lack of clarity between the four countries on messaging," Starmer told the BBC. "There are real problems here. Those that can't work from home are being told to go to work from tomorrow, but don't use public transport. That's quite a thing to spring on people. The statement raises as many questions as it answers."

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