Ministers face continued questioning over the UK’s plan for lifting its coronavirus lockdown, as European countries begin to ease their own restrictions.
Italy and Spain are among those planning small steps to relax measures, but the Government has so far declined to publish an exit strategy.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said lockdown will only be eased if the country can meet five tests: falling death figures, a protected NHS, a reduced rate of infection, sufficient testing and PPE, and avoiding a second peak of the virus.
The next three-week review of the lockdown restrictions is due on May 7. Here is an overview of what has been discussed across various sectors:
Under lockdown, schools and colleges have largely been closed, except for the children of essential workers, and it is thought this could be among the first restrictions to be eased. But Education Secretary Gavin Williamson previously said the Government had ‘no plans’ to open schools over the summer period, while Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said it would be ‘inconceivable’ without some further measures in place. Head teachers have previously been advised to start making preparations on how schools could safely reopen, with the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) suggesting a staggered return of pupils, with Year 6s, Year 10s and Year 12s phased in first, if permitted.
Some of Britain’s largest housebuilders, including Persimmon, Taylor Wimpey and Redrow, have already announced plans to reopen building sites in late April or early May. Under Government guidance, construction has been permitted if in accordance with social distancing rules, but many companies halted work in response to the crisis. The Home Builders Federation said the restart is expected to be gradual, being dependent on how far supporting suppliers and services, such as building inspectors, mortgage lenders and conveyancers, can also return to work. Activity will also be limited until the Government changes advice which effectively prohibits all but exceptional house moves.
Property services provider CBRE has drawn from its experiences in Asia to issue guidance to workplaces on how offices might approach re-opening in the future. It advises against a ‘full throttle’ return to work, with social distancing measures needing to be reduced gradually and in line with public health guidance. It suggests businesses should establish internal taskforces to consider issues around access to PPE supplies, touchless technologies, temperature screening and reconfiguring work environments.
– Social gatherings
Limited social gatherings could be permitted in an easing of lockdown, but should be accompanied by extensive testing and contact tracing, one expert has suggested. Dr Joshua Moon, research fellow in sustainability research methods in the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) at the University of Sussex Business School, said the Government could adopt a ‘slow release valve’ approach to the issue. He explained a phased approach might see certain sections of the population, for example healthy middle-aged people, given more freedoms initially, but he warned this risked the most vulnerable suffering the hardships of lockdown the longest. Dr Moon said family ‘clusters’ could gradually be permitted to socialise, but could not make long journeys to do so, while most businesses remained shut. ‘The idea is that within those groups you can quite easily test, trace and isolate,’ he said, adding that it was harder to monitor for people moving around in public.
Sector representative body UKHospitality has focused its energies on getting business support extended to places like bars and restaurants. A spokesman suggested that even if venues were allowed to open with reduced capacity, businesses would still struggle financially. The All Party Parliamentary Group for Hospitality and Tourism has launched an urgent inquiry into how the sectors could reopen. This includes looking at operational challenges, reactivating supply chains, Government support and encouraging demand. A report is expected by mid-May.
Ministers are thought to be considering allowing some non-essential businesses to open, such as garden centres and car showrooms, provided social-distancing could be maintained. Lobby group the British Retail Consortium has produced guidelines on how stores could prepare for the easing of restrictions. The guidance draws on lessons learned from supermarkets in recent weeks to ensure the re-opening of non-essential firms can be done safely. Advice covers limiting entry and exit points, using floor markings to outline social distancing and keeping changing rooms closed. The guidance also suggests installing cleaning stations with hand sanitiser and disinfectant wipes at the front of stores.
It is understood Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden has been working on a plan for major sports to be played behind closed doors when some social distancing rules are eased. Weekly meetings are to be held between the Government, Public Health England and medical officials from sports bodies, with the issue due to be on the table when ministers review current measures next month. Key questions that need to be tackled include testing requirements, burdens on emergency services and the possible impact on fan behaviour – such as impromptu gatherings outside grounds. Sporting bodies are understood to be keen to resume full training safely as soon as possible.
Last week, low-cost European carrier Wizz Air announced plans to resume some flights from Luton Airport on May 1. Cabin crew will be required to wear masks and gloves on all flights and will distribute sanitising wipes for passengers, while new distancing measures will also be introduced during boarding. Mr Raab has indicated that officials are looking at possible checks at air and sea ports, with passengers arriving in the UK required to quarantine for 14 days. Meanwhile, the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union warned there was ‘zero chance’ of ramping up transport services soon, amid speculation of an increase on May 11 or May 18 when a new rail timetable is due. Last week, industry sources said no dates have yet been agreed or announced.