Last reviewed 11 May 2020

If employers were reading the newspapers at the beginning of last week, they could have been forgiven for expecting a major shift in the Government’s approach to dealing with the coronavirus, if not quite a return to “normal”.

However, in the intervening period, the Prime Minister’s colleagues attempted to reduce those expectations and to make it clear that he would not be making any dramatic announcements when he spoke to the nation.

In the event, his 10-minute address on Sunday evening was full of conditions and warnings that even the provisional plan he was putting forward was dependent on progress continuing to be made on the Government’s five tests.

The tests

These are, Boris Johnson reminded everyone:

  • making sure the NHS can cope

  • a “sustained and consistent” fall in the daily death rate

  • rate of infection decreasing to “manageable levels”

  • ensuring supply of tests and PPE can meet future demand

  • being confident any adjustments would not risk a second peak that would overwhelm the NHS.

The plan

Again stressing how conditional the planned changes are, Mr Johnson referred to what he was proposing as “the first sketch of a road map” with regard to moving to the next phase.

“Although we have a plan, it is a conditional plan,” the Prime Minister made clear. “We cannot move forward unless we satisfy the five tests”.

To help with this, the Government is introducing a new COVID alert system, based on the “R level” of infection and similar to that used to warn of the terrorist threat. It will run from 1 (low) to 5 and, Mr Johnson explained, it is currently at 4.

If everyone sticks to rules such as social distancing, we can begin to move to 3, he said. However, much more testing is needed and the Prime Minister repeated several times that there can be no sudden move out of lockdown.

Three phases

What Mr Johnson has offered is the outline of a three-stage plan, with the proviso that any of these phases could be delayed or disrupted by a fresh outbreak of the coronavirus.

  1. The first stage, from 11 May 2020, is to encourage those who cannot work from home to return to the workplace, although working from home remains the default option.

    However, the Prime Minister went on, people going back to work should avoid public transport if at all possible. Use the car, he advised, or, even better, go by bike or on foot.

As part of this stage, from Wednesday, the rules on outside exercise will be relaxed but still with social distancing and a continued ban on meeting those from outside the home (and with the threat of larger fines for non-compliance).

  1. By June “at the earliest”, the Prime Minister sees the possibility of a “phased reopening” of shops and of some schools.

    Those in Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 will go back first and Mr Johnson said that he hoped that those with exams coming up would be given the chance to get together with their teachers for at least a short time before the summer break.

  2. In the third phase, from July at the earliest, it is hoped to reopen some hospitality venues and “other public places”, provided they are safe and enforce social distancing.

All this depends, the Prime Minister emphasised repeatedly, on the daily figures heading in the right direction and on people continuing to follow the rules.

“We must stay alert, control the virus and save lives,” he concluded, voicing the slogan which seems to have replaced “Stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives”, much to the irritation of the heads of government in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland who have all warned that “Stay alert” was not a sufficiently clear message.

Immediate reactions

Lack of clarity and of detail seem to have been the immediate criticisms of the Prime Minister’s address with particular concerns that the “new guidance for employers wanting to make their workplaces safe”, mentioned by Mr Johnson, has not yet been published.

For the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), Director General Adam Marshall said that businesses will need to see detailed plans for the phased easing of restrictions, coordinated with all nations across the UK and supported by clear guidance.

The CBI Director General described the Prime Minister’s comments as “a glimmer of light”.

Restarting work “must go hand-in-hand with plans for schools, transport, testing and access to PPE,” Dame Carolyn Fairbairn went on. “Firms will want to see a roadmap, with dates they can plan for.”

Mr Johnson has promised more details when he speaks in Parliament today and others, including particularly Business Secretary Alok Sharma, have said that specific plans will be available in the near future.