Johnson to Set Out Lockdown Easing Plans as Virus Cases Fall
(Bloomberg) -- Boris Johnson is preparing to relax social distancing rules in a major boost to the U.K.’s hospitality industry, as the government seeks to re-open more sectors of the economy that have been shut during the lockdown.
Johnson will meet officials on Monday to discuss the conclusions of a review into the rule requiring people to keep 2-meters (6 feet 7 inches) apart.
He will provide details of the plans in Parliament on Tuesday. Health Secretary Matt Hancock suggested distancing can be reduced so long as other measures are brought in, such as wearing face coverings, using clear plastic screens and sitting back-to-back.
“The proposals that we’ll bring forward are how you can safely – safely – reduce the two meters with the sort of mitigations that we’ve been talking about,” Hancock told the BBC on Sunday. “We’re about to see another step in the plan.”
Britain is slowly emerging from a coronavirus lockdown that began on March 23, as deaths and cases of the virus also come down. Last week, non-essential shops were allowed to reopen and the country’s pandemic alert level was lowered -- a provision that allows for some relaxation of social-distancing measures. Now ministers are working out how to open other parts of the economy, including pubs and restaurants, as soon as July 4.
The lockdown has plunged the U.K. into recession and left the government paying the wages of millions of private sector workers.
Now, Johnson and Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak are drawing up plans to revive the economy, with measures under consideration including a temporary cut in value added tax -- something being urged on Monday by the former chancellor in the last Labour government, Alistair Darling, who himself cut VAT during the 2008 financial crisis.
In another step to protect U.K. businesses, the government will introduce legislation on Monday to make sure domestic companies involved in fighting the coronavirus pandemic are not susceptible to hostile foreign takeovers.
Johnson’s government -- which has been facing criticism for weeks over its handling of the pandemic is trying to balance some return to normality while limiting the risk of a new spike in infections. The U.K. has the highest death toll in Europe from the virus, and the OECD predicts it will suffer the worst economic fallout out of all advanced economies this year.
Johnson’s administration has been under pressure from pubs and other parts of the entertainment and hospitality industry to relax social-distancing measures sufficiently to allow them to re-open in a financially viable way. Detailed guidance will be published for each sector so that businesses can open safely, according to a statement from the prime minister’s office.
According to the Times, customers will have to give their names and contact details before they are allowed into pubs and restaurants.
Hancock did not rule out requirements for pub customers to register contact details so they could be traced if needed. “There are other countries in the world that take that approach and there’s a reason for it,” he said.
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The opposition Labour Party will back a move away from the two-meter rule under certain circumstances, Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth said on the BBC. The U.K. still needs to make better use of face masks, face shields for vulnerable workers and getting a test-and-trace system up and running, he said.
Johnson’s office said the country’s test and trace system will be used in the next phase to detect and control local outbreaks through targeted lockdowns. If social distancing rules are breached on a large scale, the relaxation of this week’s measures will be the first to be reversed.
The U.K. has abandoned efforts to create its own track-and-trade mobile app and will instead use Apple Inc. and Google technology. Hancock had previously pledged the technology would be ready in the middle of May. Asked on Sky when it might be ready, he said “given my experience over the last three or four months on this one, I’m not going to put a date on it, we’ll just work incredibly hard to make it happen.”
A new coronavirus test using saliva will be put into trials in Southampton starting this week, according to the Department of Health and Social Care, with doctors, essential workers, university staff and their households participating in the first phase.
The new test could increase testing capacity and accessibility as it does not require the use of a swab, which many find uncomfortable.
©2020 Bloomberg L.P.