Boris Johnson has implored people to behave responsibly and safely as England’s chief medical officer admitted Saturday’s easing of the lockdown left the country treading a narrow path with serious risks “on either side”.
In a press conference on the eve of changes that will allow restaurants, pubs and bars to reopen for the first time since March, the prime minister insisted “we are not out of the woods yet”.
“Let’s not blow it,” he said.
But his remarks came against a backdrop of the government’s handling of the pandemic being branded a shambles. Its messaging around the need to act sensibly also drew concern after it was announced pubs in England would be able to serve customers from 6am on Saturday.
Police and health workers warned that a lifting of hospitality restrictions could result in disorder and a rise in infections.
On a day when the official death toll increased by 137 to 44,131, Johnson said the country had made great strides to bring the virus under control, and argued it was time for businesses to attempt to get back to work.
In future, he said, the government would use targeted local measures, rather than blanket national ones to try to contain any second wave of infections.
“The virus is still with us and the spike in Leicester has shown that,” he said. “If it starts running out of control again this government will not hesitate in putting on the brakes and reimposing restrictions.
“I do want people to feel that it’s safe to go and enjoy themselves and enjoy hospitality. But it’s got to be done in a responsible way.”
Asked whether he was happy with the easing of the restrictions, England’s chief medical officer, Prof Chris Whitty, admitted it was “not a risk-free next step”.
“It is absolutely not, and that’s why we have to be really serious about it.” He said the country was walking “a narrow path” with “really serious risks” on either side.
He urged people to keep following social distancing rules, adding: “If individuals, families and firms do not take them seriously the possibility of a second wave goes up sharply.”
In other developments, the government said:
• Ministers would adopt a five-step plan to move from a system of nationwide lockdown to targeted local measures.
• It would set out a timetable next week for the safe reopening of the events industry and theatres. However, Johnson did not offer any details on how this would be done or on what day it would be announced.
• Rules signed off by Matt Hancock, the health secretary, were expected to place a 30-person limit on gatherings at home and outdoors in settings not deemed Covid-secure.
• Recreational cricket would be able to restart next weekend.
During a round of interviews on Friday, Johnson refused to be drawn on the conduct of his father, Stanley, who flew to his villa in Greece via Bulgaria to avoid the government’s ban on direct flights to the country.
In an attempt to strike the right tone before the easing of the restrictions, Johnson acknowledged further rises in infections were inevitable.
“We always said there would be local outbreaks requiring local action. This is to be expected and will, I’m afraid, be a feature of our lives for some time to come. But that should not take away from the great progress we have made, together, as a country against this vicious disease.
“This progress is the reason why we have been able - slowly, carefully, cautiously - to ease the national lockdown. Without doubt, lockdown has saved many hundreds of thousands of lives – but it has also had a devastating impact on our way of life and our economy.”
Johnson hinted that gyms could reopen within weeks and said he would try to get theatres going “as fast as we possibly can”.
In an earlier interview with LBC radio, the prime minister said: “We are going to reopen gyms as soon as we can do it in a Covid-secure way and I think that the date for reopening gyms at the moment, if we can do it, is in just a couple of weeks’ time.”
At a briefing held by the Independent Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, set up as an alternative to the government’s Sage committee, Prof Susan Michie, a behavioural scientist at University College London, urged people to avoid pubs at the weekend.
“The big concern is going to be in the pubs because there are likely to be more people and less control,” she said. “I don’t know whose responsibility it is going to be to try to maintain social distancing, but we know that alcohol is a great disinhibitor of behaviour.”
She said people may go drinking with firm plans to keep their distance from others and wash their hands regularly, but questioned whether those intentions would survive the night. “After a couple of drinks, the chances are those plans are going to be forgotten,” she said. “I’d suggest, firstly, that people may want to avoid pubs. But if you go, I’d suggest limiting your own drinking to one or two so at least you can try to keep yourself safe as well as possible.”