LONDON (Reuters) – Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he hoped Britain could return to normality before Christmas, setting out a phased removal of lockdown restrictions, but warned the country still needed to prepare for the worst.
Britain’s death toll of more than 45,000 from confirmed cases of COVID-19 is Europe’s highest but the country has begun to lift lockdown measures as case numbers and infection rates fall.
Johnson set out the latest timetable for easing on Friday, saying employers would be given more discretion over working from home rules, that the safety of larger gatherings would be evaluated, and that social distancing rules might be dropped in time for Christmas.
“It is my strong and sincere hope that we will be able to review the outstanding restrictions and allow a more significant return to normality from November at the earliest – possibly in time for Christmas,” he said.
However, he stressed that the plan depended on keeping infection rates down, and set out extra healthcare funding and new powers for local government to lock down COVID-19 hotspots.
“We’re making sure we’re ready for winter and planning for the worst. But even as we plan for the worst, I strongly believe we should also hope for the best,” he told a news conference.
The government has faced criticism over several aspects of its pandemic response, including that it was too slow to impose a lockdown and failed to ramp up testing capacity fast enough.
Opposition leader Keir Starmer said it was vital that Johnson’s plan was endorsed by experts in order to win public confidence.
“This can’t be done on a wing and a prayer. It requires a credible plan and national leadership,” Starmer said.
Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, struck a pessimistic tone, saying a second wave was possible.
Vallance told the science and technology committee of Britain’s upper house of parliament that if the virus continued to circulate, social distancing measures would remain necessary.
Johnson said that from Aug. 1 he would scrap official guidance that encouraged people to work from home and instead give employers the power to decide whether it was safe for workers to return.
He also changed his advice on public transport, telling people that anybody may now use it although they were encouraged to consider alternative means where available. Previous guidance was for people to try to avoid it.
The government set out a 3 billion pound ($3.8 billion) cash boost for the state-funded health system which would be made available immediately, and permitted the use of private hospitals and temporary field hospitals to ease the increased winter burden.
The funding announcement applies only to the English health service, with equivalent increases for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to be set out later.
The government will also increase testing capacity and flexibility, bolster its stockpiles of protective equipment and, – wary of increased pressure from other seasonal illnesses = increase its annual flu vaccination programme.
(Additional reporting by Andrew MacAskill; Editing by Stephen Addison and Catherine Evans)