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Situation Update - Coronavirus Pandemic - UK Impact

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PM JOHNSON ANNOUNCES ‘CONDITIONAL’ CORONAVIRUS EXIT STRATEGY FOR ENGLAND

  • People who cannot work from home are encouraged to return to the workplace if safety measures are in place - but avoid public transport.

  • Public to no longer be subject to exercise limit.

  • New Covid Alert System with five levels to inform public policy.

  • Some primary pupils to return to school from 1 June, at the earliest.

  • Some hospitality businesses and other public places to reopen no earlier than 4 July.

  • Wearing of home-made face coverings advised for certain enclosed spaces.

  • Government unveils new coronavirus message: "stay alert, control the virus, save lives".

  • Devolved authorities maintain 'Stay at Home' messaging, evidencing lack of consensus.

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Situation

At 19:00 BST on 10 May, Prime Minister Boris Johnson unveiled a ‘conditional’ coronavirus exit strategy for England; with the devolved authorities of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland setting their own coronavirus policies.

The PM detailed a three-stage approach, starting 11 May, whereby England will reopen under a ‘new normal’. In the first stage, workers who cannot work from home - such as those in construction or manufacturing – will be actively encouraged to return to work, if they can observe social distancing rules. However, these workers should seek to avoid using public transport for their commutes.

From 13 May, restrictions on the amount of outdoor exercise will be lifted, this includes the permission to travel to locations not in the immediate vicinity of a person’s home. There will also be a ‘common sense’ approach for meeting a family member in public spaces, ensuring social distancing is adhered to. Fines for those who break the rules will now increase from £60 to £100 for first offenders.

Thereafter, and dependant on outbreak monitoring, the government will look to implement its second stage from 1 June, at the earliest. This will involve the reopening of some shops that can comply with social distancing and a phased reopening of schools, starting with primary education (reception, year one, and year six). The conditions for other childcare facilities to open remain unclear.

From no earlier than 4 July, and again conditional to the progress of the outbreak, England will start to reopen some social venues, subject to social distancing. Details concerning stage 3 remain particularly unclear.

The PM also announced the UK would soon introduce a mandatory quarantine for any persons entering the UK by air. These people will be asked to self-isolate for 14 days on arrival to the UK. However, this does not apply to France or the common travel area.

A new five-tier colour coded COVID-19 alert system will be introduced for which the government will align its policies. The five-tier system ranging from green to red is similar to the one used by the government to announce threats from terrorism. It will be run by a new Joint Biosecurity Centre.

The lockdown measures will be lifted or increased as the pandemic develops and the country either descends or ascends the five-tier system, with level one meaning the disease is no longer present and level five being the most critical. At present, the UK is currently on a level four just below the “most critical” but is moving towards a level three.

In addition, in line with the policies of other countries, for the first time, people in England are also being advised to wear face coverings in enclosed spaces where they come into contact with other people – including on public transport. This guidance emphasises that people should use home-made coverings, not specialist masks, in order to protect PPE for health care providers. This is not a legal requirement.

Over the past 24 hours, a further 210 people died in the UK after testing positive for coronavirus, taking the total number of deaths recorded to 32,065. The government also missed its target of 100,000 coronavirus tests a day for the eighth day in a row on Saturday, completing 92,837 tests.

Those who are clinically extremely vulnerable will be told to continue to shield beyond June.

Analysis

While the contingent nature of the plan means there is significant ambiguity in the message being provided, the Prime Minister's announcement demonstrates an intent to return UK society towards a 'new' normal life while continuing to suppress the virus.

What is clear is that the central focus of the plan throughout all phases is the need to maintain social distancing. According to the latest data on the spread, the R rate of infection is understood to be between 0.5 and 0.9, meaning at present there is no exponential increase in case numbers, evidenced by the falling rate of confirmed cases. However, as witnessed in Germany, there is an inherent risk that relaxing measures could result in an increase in cases; Germany is currently reporting an R rate above 1, meaning a return to exponential growth in the spread. Moreover, the chairman of the British Medical Association (BMA) has questioned the basis of the government’s decision to loosen lockdown rules, evidencing that the number of deaths recorded on Saturday, 346, was higher than when the restrictions were brought in.

Complicating the situation for the Prime Minister is the regional differences in spread alongside the ability of the devolved governments (Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland) to adjust the measures under their jurisdictions. All three devolved authorities have rejected the new slogan “Stay Alert”, instead maintaining the message to “Stay at Home”. It remains to be seen which parts of the UK government’s advice will be taken up by the other three nations. Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster has said a plan to take the nation slowly out of lockdown could be published on Tuesday.

On 11 May, in response to the criticisms, the government guidance document was released on the new rules; however, the risk remains that varying approaches will cause difficulties for employers/employees operating across regions the UK. The Trades Union Congress (TUC) general secretary has called for “clear direction” and the British Chambers of Commerce said businesses needed their "practical questions answered so they can plan to restart, rebuild and renew". Meanwhile, where there is room for interpretation the national chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales has said enforcement will be difficult. Over the Bank Holiday weekend, officers in Cumbria issued over 100 fines, which is said to be the highest number of penalties issued since the lockdown began.

The establishment of the dedicated coronavirus Nightingale hospitals alongside the current downward curve of new infections has substantially alleviated concerns regarding NHS intensive care capacity.

The new quarantine measures for persons entering the UK by air is expected to involve a two-week self-isolation period. This will likely include foreign and UK nationals starting in June, if not before. It is not clear if ports will be included, but this remains possible. Fines for breaching the conditions are expected to be up to £1,000 and there is also the potential for persons to be deported.

Implications

The need to maintain social distancing in the workplace will require notable changes to working practices and could result in a prolonged period where employees work from home. Where this is not possible, employers and employees will likely face challenges in maintaining confidence in the safety measures taken, especially in larger organisations and those in the service industry. This will require robust and flexible return to work plans. In addition, the lack of scientific evidence that face masks reduce transmission means there is no legal requirement for staff to wear such coverings.

The differences in approach across the devolved administrations is likely to cause problems in cross-border travel. The Welsh government has already told the public not to travel to destinations in Wales, including from England.

The anticipated changes for inbound air travel will significantly impact demand, meaning capacity reduction programmes will likely continue beyond any initial reopening phases, although it is likely some exceptions will be made. These quarantine measures reflect those already introduced by other countries, including Australia, New Zealand and Singapore. Scheduled airline global flying capacity fell to 26.6 million seats for the week 4-10 May. Domestic air travel is expected to recover at a faster rate than internationally; however, the differences in strategy between the four nations could dampen such demand.

Beyond social distancing, robust testing, track and trace monitoring, and vaccine development will all remain critical to the government’s ability to suppress the virus and reopen society. Any adjustments to the lockdown measures will be gradual.