LONDON (AP) — Up to six people from different households will be allowed to meet outdoors next week as part of another modest easing of the coronavirus lockdown in England, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Thursday.
But the government’s chief scientific adviser cautioned that Britain was at a “fragile” point in its fight against the virus, with some 2,000 new infections still being reported each day — more than two months after the country went into lockdown.
Johnson, who has faced days of scorn for keeping his top aide Dominic Cummings in post following his controversial travels during the lockdown, said families and friends in groups of up to six can meet from Monday in outdoor spaces, including public parks and private gardens.
Johnson said at a news conference that this was potentially a “long-awaited and joyful moment” for parents and grandparents but stressed that people must remain 2 meters (6.5 feet) apart. Barbecues are allowed as part of the easing but camping in gardens is not.
“It remains the case that people should not be inside the homes of their friends and families, unless it is to access the garden,” he said.
The prime minister also confirmed that schools will start reopening from Monday, initially for some younger students. Outdoor-based shops, such as car showrooms, can also reopen. Earlier, England’s Premier League also said that the soccer season is to recommence on June 17.
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are also easing lockdowns, in slightly different ways.
Johnson said the “limited and cautious” changes were possible because five government-imposed tests have been met. These include “sustained and consistent” falls in virus infections and the daily death rate.
Though the number of people dying after testing positive for COVID-19 has fallen since the peak in early April. the U.K. still recorded another 377 deaths in all settings including hospitals and care homes, taking the total to 37,837 — the second-highest in the world behind the United States.
“This is not a time to say ‘Everything’s OK, we’re relaxing measures, everything’s going to be rosy,” said the government’s chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance. “We are at a fragile state.”
Johnson continued to brush aside questions about Cummings, and said that the issue was now closed after police said they will not take any action on the matter
Johnson has come under pressure to sack Cummings from across the political spectrum, including from within his own Conservative Party, after his adviser drove 250 miles (400 km) to his parents’ house in Durham, northeast England, at the end of March while the country was under a “stay-at-home” order. Cummings made a later journey to a scenic town 30 miles (50 km) away.
Following an investigation, Durham Constabulary said the drive to Durham did not breach the rules but the second trip, to Barnard Castle, might have been “a minor breach” of lockdown rules “that would have warranted police intervention.” But the force said “there is no intention to take retrospective action” because no one else has been fined retrospectively. More than 14,000 people in Britain have been fined by police for violating a ban on all but essential travel.
Keir Starmer, leader of the main opposition Labour Party, said the police’s assessment was “inconsistent” with what Johnson has said.
“But frankly, he’s too weak to do anything about it,” he said. “I don’t think he’s going to do anything because he cannot, it seems, continue without his adviser.”
Cummings has defended his actions, saying he traveled to ensure that his 4-year-old son could be looked after if he and his wife, who both had coronavirus symptoms, became sick. He says he drove to Barnard Castle to test whether his eyesight, which had been affected by illness, was good enough for the long trip back to London.
Johnson refused to let his chief medical and scientific advisers answer questions about Cummings at the government’s daily news conference, saying it was a “political” matter.
Johnson is also facing pressure to scrap a government immigration-related policy after he appeared to be caught unaware of the fact that many migrants to the U.K. cannot access financial support during the pandemic.
Introduced in 2014, the “no recourse to public funds” status is a standard condition applied to mainly non-European people staying in the U.K. with temporary immigration status.
Johnson said Wednesday he would “see what we can do to help” people who have no recourse to public funds, stoking speculation that his government may be poised to announce another change in policy. In one of two changes last week, the government said overseas health and social care staff would be exempt from a surcharge to use the National Health Service.
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