British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s attempt to ease the country out of a near total lockdown has gotten off to a rocky start with contradictory messages, growing confusion and deep divisions among regional leaders.
Britain has been in lockdown since March 23 in an attempt to stop the spread of the coronavirus, which has now killed more than 32,000 people in the country. On Sunday, Mr. Johnson announced plans to ease some of the restrictions over the course of the next two months but provided few details.
The government released a 51-page document Monday that was supposed to clarify Mr. Johnson’s game plan but only caused more confusion. It wasn’t clear from the document which businesses could reopen, what guidelines employers had to follow for physical distancing or whether people could leave their homes to visit relatives.
Mr. Johnson caused bafflement with a proposal to impose a 14-day quarantine on travellers arriving in the country. At first he said the quarantine only applied to air passengers, then the government said it applied to all arrivals – by air, land or sea. But there was no start date for the measure, and Mr. Johnson couldn’t say if it only applied to England.
The leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have made it clear that they won’t be following much of Mr. Johnson’s plan, leaving the country facing a patchwork of restrictions. Britain doesn’t have a written constitution, and most of the lockdown measures involve powers that have been handed to the regions over the years. For now, the regional First Ministers are not convinced the lockdown should be lifted.
“I want to reiterate that those announcements [from the U.K. government] do not apply yet here in Scotland,” said First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. “That is not, let me stress, for any political reasons. It is because the Scottish government is not yet confident that these changes can be made safely in Scotland yet without running the risk of the virus potentially running out of control again.”
Mr. Johnson told members of Parliament Monday that more details would be made available in the coming days and added that his plan relied on “good, solid, British common sense.” If all goes well, he said, some schools would reopen in June and restaurants and pubs could restart in July. “I think everybody understands what we’re trying to do together,” he said during a debate in the House of Commons. “And that is working together as a country to obey the social-distancing rules which everybody understands.”
That failed to convince Labour Party Leader Sir Keir Starmer, who said Mr. Johnson’s announcement and the government document had provided few answers and raised more questions. “What the country needs at this time is clarity and reassurance, and at the moment both are in pretty short supply,” Sir Keir told MPs.
Chaand Nagpaul, the chair of the British Medical Association, called Mr. Johnson’s plan “too fast, too confusing and too risky.” In a statement, Dr. Nagpaul added that “it would be irresponsible to allow any chance of a second spike of this virus; however, these measures risk doing just that.”
Robert Dingwall, a professor of sociology at Nottingham Trent University, said Mr. Johnson had been unfairly criticized. “Detailed regulation is not the way to control the spread of this infection unless the science becomes more certain,” Dr. Dingwall said Monday. “At best, the government can create a framework of information within which people can make their own assessments and manage their own risks, with a focus on the ends rather than the means.”
Mr. Johnson has been trying to balance public-health concerns with rising economic uncertainty. More than six million workers who have been laid off because of the pandemic have applied for a government furlough program that pays 80 per cent of their wages. That program will be phased out over the summer, and there are fears that a large number of people will become permanently unemployed.
Willie Walsh, the chief executive of International Airline Group, which owns British Airways, told a parliamentary committee Monday that Mr. Johnson’s planned quarantine would ruin the airline industry.
"I don’t think anybody believed that the U.K. government would actually implement [a quarantine] if they were serious about getting the economy moving again,” Mr. Walsh told MPs. British Airways has furloughed 22,600 workers and last week said 12,000 would be laid off. "Anybody who believes we can sit back and wait for months because we are in receipt of the job-retention scheme – I’m afraid they misunderstand the scale of the challenge that we face,” Mr. Walsh added.
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