WARRINGTON, England (Reuters) – Thousands of people across England queued up for school and IKEA on Monday as the British government eased the coronavirus lockdown by allowing some children to return to class and many shops to reopen for the first time since March.
The lockdown has stalled the United Kingdom’s $3 trillion economy and the government has ramped up borrowing to the highest levels in peacetime history.
While some schools in England allowed 4 to 6-year-olds and 10 to 11-year-olds back to school, many parents planned to keep children at home amid fears ministers were moving too fast. Lines formed as parents dropped off their children who teachers aimed to keep 2 metres apart. Playgrounds were silent.
In Warrington, northern England, people arrived at 0540 GMT to start queuing for the IKEA store to reopen at 0900 GMT. A line of more than 1,000 people snaked around the car park. There were similar scenes at IKEA at Wembley in London.
At Leicester’s market, some stall-holders wore masks. Signs implored customers not to touch the heaped produce.
The easing of the lockdown, imposed to slow the spread of the new coronavirus, means up to six people can now meet outside in England, outdoor markets can reopen, elite competitive sport can resume without spectators and more than 2 million of the most vulnerable will now be allowed to spend time outdoors.
But with Britain recording more than 38,000 deaths from confirmed COVID-19 cases, one of the highest tolls in the world, many are worried that it is happening too soon, including a number of scientists who advise the government who have warned it could lead to a second spike in infections.
“The overall view from SAGE – the scientific advisory group on emergencies which advises the government – their overall view is that we must do this cautiously and that is precisely what we are doing,” business minister Alok Sharma told BBC TV.
“These are very cautious steps that we are taking,” he said, adding it was a “very sensitive moment”.
Ministers have been wrestling with how to kickstart the economy while avoiding a second wave of infections.
The government says the relaxation of rules on Monday represents only a limited easing, but there has been concern that the country is not ready for the changes and that more people are beginning to ignore guidelines on social distancing.
A survey for the National Foundation for Educational Research found school leaders estimated 46% of parents would keep their children at home over health concerns, fears echoed by some health officials.
“Directors of public health are increasingly concerned that the government is misjudging this balancing act and lifting too many restrictions, too quickly,” said Jeanelle de Gruchy, president of the Association of Directors of Public Health.
(Writing by Guy Faulconbridge, Alistair Smout and Michael Holden; Editing by Janet Lawrence)