LONDON (AP) — The British government performed an about-face on masks Monday, telling people to cover their mouth and nose in shops, buses and subway trains. The change came as part of a plan to gradually lift a nationwide lockdown imposed seven weeks ago to slow the spread of the new coronavirus.
In a 50-page document outlining cautious steps to ease restrctions, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government said “people should aim to wear a face-covering in enclosed spaces where social distancing is not always possible and they come into contact with others that they do not normally meet, for example on public transport or in some shops.”
That is a recommendation rather than a rule, and people won’t be penalized if they don’t wear a mask.
The government outlined a three-stage approach to ending lockdown, beginning Wednesday with a relaxing of limits on outdoor activity. People in England may take unlimited amounts of exercise, rather than just one trip out a day, and may sit and sunbathe outdoors. Driving to a park or beach will be permitted, and golf courses and tennis courts can reopen.
If there is no new spike in infections, that will be followed in June by a return to class for some young school pupils, the reopening of nonessential shops and the return of televised sports, played behind closed doors. A third stage, penciled in for July at the soonest, would see the gradual reopening of restaurants, cafes, pubs, hairdressers and other businesses.
But the document warned that “if the data suggests the virus is spreading again, the government will have to tighten restrictions, possibly at short notice.”
While many people welcomed the prospect of an end to lockdown, police organizations warned that the new rules were fuzzy and made enforcement harder.
Employees, business owners and trade unions expressed concern about a switch in emphasis about the workplace. Since March 23, workers have been told to stay at home. Now they are being encouraged to return to work — but preferably without getting near other people or using public transport.
In a televised statement Sunday, Johnson extended most of the draconian restrictions on daily life imposed March 23, including the closure of schools, restaurants and most shops.
Britain’s official coronavirus death toll stands at almost 32,000, the highest in Europe and the second-highest in the world after the United States. While the number of new deaths and infections is falling, Johnson said it would be “madness” to loosen restrictions so much that there is a new surge in cases.
But he made a dramatic shift in tone on the economy, saying “anyone who can’t work from home, for instance those in construction or manufacturing, should be actively encouraged to go to work.”
He said workplaces should observe social distancing and people should avoid public transport if possible, traveling “by car or even better by walking or bicycle.”
Critics said the advice was confusing, hard to follow and potentially dangerous — especially in a big city like London, where most people do not own cars and where subways are operating at a fraction of their usual capacity.
Some expressed fears that people in low-paid jobs, who are less likely to be able to work from home, will be put in danger. That concern was underscored by official statistics showing that men working as security guards, construction workers, transit workers and shop assistants had experienced higher-than-average mortality in the outbreak. Men overall are about twice as likely as women to die with the coronavirus.
After Johnson spoke, London Major Sadiq Khan issued a statement stressing that the lockdown had not been lifted and saying Londoners “must not use public transport for any unnecessary journeys.”
London’s Waterloo station, usually the country’s busiest train hub, remained largely quiet Monday morning but commuters venturing back to work said they worried that services would soon be thronged again.
Peter Osu, 45, who was returning to work at a construction site for the first time since the lockdown started, said he felt nervous.
“People were sitting close together on the (subway) and others were having to stand,” he said. “There was no 2-meter spacing. This is the first day. Can you imagine what it’s going to look like by the end of the week?”
The reopening plan has put Johnson’s U.K. government at odds with semi-autonomous authorities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, who urged more caution and said they would not automatically adopt the measures Johnson has announced for England.
Johnson, who was hospitalized last month with a serious bout of COVID-19, also said that within weeks the U.K. would impose a 14-day quarantine on people arriving by air. Travelers from Ireland and France will be exempt.