PM Endorses Use of Face Coverings as Part of Lockdown Exit Plan

Peter Russell

May 11, 2020

More detailed plans to navigate a way out of the COVID-19 lockdown in England have been published by the Government.

A 50 page document builds on broad brush announcements made by the Prime Minister Boris Johnson in his TV address on Sunday evening in which he spoke of the "first sketch of a road map for reopening society" that would come into effect from Wednesday.

The document, Our Plan to Rebuild: The UK Government's COVID-19 recovery strategy , confirmed a new emphasis on being alert to the dangers posed by the pandemic rather than a blanket call for people to remain at home.

Speaking in the House of Commons shortly after its publication, Mr Johnson said it set out "how we can, with the utmost caution, gradually begin to rebuild our economy and reopen our society".

Prominently in the new advice, workers were advised to continue to work from home wherever possible.

Those who cannot work from home should travel to work if their workplace is open.

However, everybody, including critical workers, should try to avoid public transport.

Social distancing guidelines must be followed by anyone using public transport.

Face Masks

For the first time, the Government has promoted the wearing of face coverings in enclosed spaces, such as in shops or on public transport.

It said a face covering was distinct from the type of facemask used as part of personal protective equipment (PPE) by healthcare workers, supplies of which needed to be reserved for those who needed them most.

The wearing of face coverings in some indoor situations was not intended to protect the wearer, but to protect against them inadvertently spreading the virus to others if they had it asymptomatically.

There would not be a legal requirement to wear a face covering.

In significant changes to the lockdown rules, people will no longer be restricted to one episode of exercise each day. People will be able to exercise as many times each day as they wish. They will also be able to spend time outdoors, or exercise, in the company of one other person from outside their household, subject to remaining 2 metres apart.

It will also be possible to drive to outdoor open spaces, irrespective of distance. However, it will not be permissible for people in England to travel to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, where this is inconsistent with tighter rules and restrictions issued by devolved administrations.

Divisions emerged since the weekend between the devolved nations on the extent of any changes. The Scottish Government, for instance, said that while people can exercise more than once a day, activity should take place close to home and did not allow people to mix with those from different households.

Mark Drakeford, the Welsh First Minister said people in England should not drive to Wales to exercise. "Our advice has not changed in Wales," he said. "Wherever you can, you should stay at home."

The changes in England follow advice from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) which said that virus transmission risks were significantly lower outdoors than inside.

Opening Schools

Nurseries and primary schools could start to re-open from the 1st June at the earliest, depending on scientific advice. Primary school children in Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 would be first to return.

The document sets out an ambition to get all primary school children back to school before the end of the summer term.

Secondary school children due to sit GCSE and 'A'-level exams next year may be able to have some time with their teachers before the end of the school year.

It said the rate of infection remains too high to allow the reopening of schools for all pupils yet.

Playgrounds will remain closed for the time being because of the risk of the virus being spread from touched surfaces.

Among other measures being planned:

  • Non-essential retail outlets could be opened when and where it is safe to do so after 1st June

  • Cultural and sporting events might take place behind closed doors for broadcast

  • An "ambition" to open hairdressers, food service providers, pubs, hotels, places of worship, and cinemas, but "no earlier than 4th July"

NHS and Care Sector

The document underlined the Government's commitment to secure NHS and care capacity, and put it on a sustainable footing.

It promised to boost the supply of PPE from overseas and domestic sources.

The Government's "number one priority for adult social care" would be infection control.

Guidance on shielding and vulnerability would be kept under review, but it was likely that people who were clinically extremely vulnerable would continue to be advised to shield beyond June.

Mass contact testing and tracing could allow the Government to ease social restrictions faster by targeting more precisely suppression of the transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the document said. 

The Government promised to "increasingly augment swab-based antigen testing, which determines whether a person currently has the virus, with antibody testing, which shows whether a person has previously had it, once it is sufficiently reliable to do so".

Alert Levels

There was confirmation of a five-tier alert system to rank the threat from COVID-19. The Joint Biosecurity Centre would advise on the overall prevalence of COVID-19 to help inform decisions about restrictions.

The alert levels are:

  • Level 1: COVID-19 is not known to be present in the UK

  • Level 2: COVID-19 is present in the UK, but the number of cases and transmission is low

  • Level 3: A COVID-19 epidemic is in general circulation

  • Level 4: A COVID-19 epidemic is in general circulation; transmission is high or rising exponentially

  • Level 5: As level 4, and there is a material risk of healthcare services being overwhelmed

Mr Johnson told MPs that "thanks to the hard work and sacrifices of the British people by following the social distancing rules, we're now in a position where we can move in stages to where I hope the scientific advice will tell us that we are down to level 3".

Responding to the Prime Minister's statement, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer called for further clarification on guidelines for employees and public transport use.

He also warned of the dangers of divergence in messages being issued by the UK's devolved nations, calling on Mr Johnson to ensure "we exit lockdown as one United Kingdom, just as we entered it".

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