London, United Kingdom | AFP | British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told senior ministers on Thursday the government would adopt “maximum caution” as it moves towards a relaxation of lockdown measures imposed to combat the coronavirus outbreak.
Johnson will address the nation on Sunday evening, his spokesman said, but warned against reports of a major easing in social distancing rules announced in March.
“We are not going to do anything that risks a second peak,” he told reporters. “We will proceed with maximum caution.”
He added: “Any easement to the guidelines next week will be very limited, we are at a critical moment in the fight against the virus and will not do anything that risks throwing away the efforts or sacrifices of the British public.”
The PM’s spokesman said that Johnson used the phrase “maximum caution” when talking to colleagues at a Cabinet meeting.
The comments came after media reports that unlimited exercise and picnics will be allowed as part of the first step of easing restrictions in the country, which has suffered the most fatalities of any European nation.
The Bank of England warned on Thursday the British economy could slump by 14 percent because of the outbreak, although it would rebound by 15 percent next year.
Johnson’s spokesman said the “worst thing we could do” is relax restrictions and thereby allow a second spike in virus rates which would require fresh measures, hitting the economy further.
The latest health ministry figures show that 30,076 people with coronavirus have died in the UK.
However, broader official data released this week put the total number of deaths by late April above 32,000 — including 107 health care workers and 29 care staff.
– Four nation approach? –
London has indicated it wants a united “four-nation approach” to lifting lockdown measures across all the countries of the United Kingdom.
But Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said she would not be pressured into ending the measures too soon and risk a resurgence of the virus.
She told reporters there were suggestions infection rates in Scotland were higher than elsewhere, and extended the restrictions for another three weeks until May 28.
“We can make changes to the regulations before then if the evidence suggests it is safe to do so,” she added.
Sturgeon, who leads the devolved government in Edinburgh which has powers over health policy in Scotland, has clashed with Johnson during the crisis.
She said there was “merit” in a single policy for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland but if one wanted to go “at a slightly different pace we have to respect that”.
– Proposals –
Possible changes to social distancing measures could see pubs and cafes with gardens allowed to open but people would be required to remain two metres (six feet) apart.
The government and its scientific advisers have warned not to expect a return to normality for months.
“The messaging will evolve from stay at home to be careful when you’re out,” an unnamed minister told the Daily Telegraph.
Offices will have to stagger arrivals and separate staff with screens, while meetings will continue to take place remotely when possible, according to the paper.
Meanwhile, two separate studies indicated that black and minority ethnic groups were more at risk from the virus than the white population.
The Office for National Statistics said black men and women were more than four times more likely to die with coronavirus than white people in England and Wales.
Geographic and socio-economic factors, such as deprivation, as well as health and disability, could explain the differences, the ONS said.
Johnson said last week that Britain had passed the peak of the outbreak, the daily death toll was falling and the infection rate dropping below one — meaning each person with the disease is passing it on to less than one other.