How Will Johnson Lift the U.K.’s Lockdown? What We Know

(Bloomberg) --

Prime Minister Boris Johnson put the U.K. into lockdown on March 23, telling everyone to stay at home unless they needed to go out for food or exercise, and to work from home if they could.

With the economy reeling, the prime minister is now under pressure from businesses and members of parliament to explain how and when he will loosen those restrictions. Here’s what we know.

The Next Decision Point is May 7

The government is committed to making an announcement every three weeks on whether it will extend the lockdown. The next is due on May 7. There will be no changes before then, the Department for Business said Thursday.

A Plan is Coming Next Week

Johnson said on Thursday evening that the U.K. has passed the peak of infection, and he will be setting out a plan next week to get the economy working, schools open, and public transport running again.

A Policy Change Isn’t Imminent

The government has set five tests that need to be met before it starts lifting the lockdown:

  • The National Health Service has capacity to provide critical care
  • The infection is past its peak, with a sustained fall in daily deaths
  • The rate of infection is decreasing
  • Enough tests and protective kit for health workers are available
  • There is no risk of a second wave of infections overwhelming the NHS

In practice, a lot of those tests are judgment calls. The key number to watch is “R,” the reproduction rate of the virus -- how many other people each infected person passes it to. Scientists and ministers need to be confident the figure is less than one. On Thursday, the estimate was that it was between 0.6 and 0.9.

When scientists were preparing different social distancing plans at the start of March, they expected them to last for between eight and 13 weeks -- or through late June.

Some companies are working to that timetable: J Sainsbury Plc, Britain’s second-largest grocer, said Thursday it expects the lockdown to ease by the end of that month. Nissan Motor Co. is planning to resume production at its plant in Sunderland, northeast England, in early June.

It All Depends on Track-and-Trace

Health Secretary Matt Hancock says the key to reducing the infection rate lies in tracking the spread of the virus and isolating people who have it as well as those who have been in contact with them.

But when the government tried to do just that in March, it failed: It lacked the testing capability and necessary technology.

The U.K. has since stepped up the pace of testing and wants to recruit 18,000 contact tracers -- but the mobile phone app that will keep a record of everyone the owner has been in contact with won’t be ready until mid-May. A significant easing is unlikely before a lot of people have installed the app and the software is clearly working.

You May Get a Certificate

The government is looking at issuing immunity certificates to people who have taken antibody tests that show they have had the virus. The tests aren’t available yet, but such a certificate could be used to allow people to return to work and move freely as normal.

You’ll Probably Have to Wear a Mask

Johnson signaled a big shift in the government’s position when he spoke on Thursday: “I do think face coverings will be useful both for epidemiological reasons and giving people confidence it’s safe to go back to work.”

The Easing Will be Gradual

Ministers have been clear the economy can’t be switched back on all at once, so it will be done in stages. It’s more likely to be staggered by sectors than by regions. The Financial Times reported on Thursday that the government is preparing detailed guidance on how different types of business can reopen.

Businesses That Can Maintain Social Distancing Will Be First Out

Businesses operating outdoors, where the risk of transmitting the virus is lower, are more likely to be able to open first when restrictions ease, Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick told ITV’s Peston program. That puts garden centers at the head of the line.

Some chain stores are looking at what they can do. Next Plc and Dixons Carphone Plc plan to reopen their larger stores first. Dixons Chief Executive Officer Alex Baldock said the electronics retailer will be ready to start opening next week, though won’t do so until it gets government approval. The company is also considering turning some stores into drive-through, click-and-collect operations to limit personal contact.

The Hospitality Industry Will Be Last Out

JD Wetherspoon Plc says it is planning to reopen its pubs in or around June -- but that could turn out to be optimistic. Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove said the hospitality industry will be the last to see restrictions lifted, as it is the one where it is hardest to maintain social distancing.

Not Every Business That Did Close Needed To

There are indications that the government was surprised at the level of compliance with the lockdown, and didn’t expect so many businesses to shut. The official guidance was that people who can work from home should do so, but many appear to have interpreted that as people who can’t work from home shouldn’t work.

In a sign the government wants the latter group to return to work, Hancock announced on April 28 that all those who need to leave their home to do their job will be entitled to be tested for the virus. The same day, the government clarified its guidance, saying that shops selling non-essential goods that operate a click-and-collect service could re-open.

Some Businesses Are Already Re-Opening

Homebase, a home-improvement chain, has reopened 50 stores. Rival B&Q has reopened all of its 288 U.K. outlets with what it calls strict social distancing measures in place.

Burger King has also begun a phased reopening of its restaurants for delivery and drive-through orders. Bakery chain Greggs Plc said it will open 20 stores in Newcastle, northeast England, from May 4 as part of a trial.

Re-Opening is Complicated

Even businesses that don’t serve customers in person will have social distancing issues to address: employees will need to be separated in canteens, restrooms and meeting spaces. Labor unions are demanding that workers are protected properly.

Then there is the question of how to phase the return to work. Public transport will need to return to full service early in the process to allow commuters to be spaced apart -- but transport workers want assurances about their personal safety.

Many parents can’t return to work until schools re-open, but teachers want guidance on how they are supposed to keep children apart.

What About Schools?

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said this week schools in England will re-open in a “phased manner,” but he couldn’t give give a date for when they will restart. He did, though, rule out opening them during the summer vacation between mid-July and the start of September.

It Might Have to Wait For A Vaccine

The easing plans all rest on the assumption that the virus can be contained without a full lockdown. But if infections shoot up when the brakes come off, the country may find itself back in lockdown. There may need to be a vaccine before the restrictions can be fully lifted.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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