Boris Johnson has unveiled his plan for a “more significant return to normality” by Christmas, as he revealed steps to encourage people back to work in England and sweeping measures that will allow ministers to issue stay-at-home orders to tackle coronavirus outbreaks.
Acknowledging that the targeted restrictions could be “hard going” for people, the prime minister detailed a roadmap for England over the next few months that signals a shift in the government’s response to localised action to stem Covid-19.
At a Downing Street press conference, Johnson said that from Saturday local authorities would have new powers to close specific premises, shut outdoor spaces and cancel events. In addition, regulations set out in draft in parliament next week will allow central government to intervene in local areas by issuing “stay-at-home” orders, limit the numbers at gatherings beyond national rules and restrict transport.
In a surprise move, Johnson also indicated that it might “be possible to move away from the social distancing measures” by November at the earliest.
In a raft of updates, the prime minister said:
It will be up to employers to discuss with workers whether it is safe to return from 1 August. Meanwhile, current advice to avoid public transport in England is being scrapped.
Most remaining leisure settings, including bowling, skating rinks, casinos and close-contact services such as beauticians will be allowed to reopen from 1 August. But nightclubs and soft play areas will stay closed.
Indoor performances to live audiences will also restart in August, subject to pilots. Larger gatherings in sports stadiums will also be piloted with a view to reopening in the autumn. Wedding receptions for up to 30 people will also be allowed.
Coronavirus testing will be boosted to increase capacity to “at least” half a million a day – 3.5m a week – by the end of October.
£3bn of extra funding would help the NHS prepare for a possible second coronavirus wave.
Johnson said: “It is my strong and sincere hope that we will be able to review the outstanding restrictions and allow a more significant return to normality from November, at the earliest, possibly in time for Christmas.”
In response to a question from a member of the public about contact with grandchildren, Johnson suggested that social distancing rules could change within months.
He said: “I think what we’re trying to say about the one-metre rule generally and social distancing generally is that, clearly, looking through til the spring, looking through to the long term impacts that social distancing will continue to have on many sectors of the UK economy, what we’re saying is that we hope that by November, at the earliest, if we can continue to make progress in our struggle against the virus then it may, may conceivably be possible to move away from the social distancing measures, from the one-metre rule and other things by that time.”
However, he cautioned: “That is entirely conditional, as I say, on our ability to continue to keep the virus under control.”
Johnson explained that local lockdowns, such as in Leicester, which is set to have measures eased, can be used to control coronavirus in future. “National lockdown was undoubtedly the right thing to do and has saved many thousands of lives,” Johnson said. “Now, however, we know more about the virus, we understand the epidemiology better and our intelligence about where it is spreading is vastly improved. That means we can control it through targeted local action instead.”
Setting out new powers for local authorities, he said: “From tomorrow, local authorities will have new powers in their areas. They will be able to close specific premises, shut public outdoor spaces and cancel events.
“These powers will enable local authorities to act more quickly in response to outbreaks where speed is paramount. Action by local councils will not always be sufficient, so next week we will publish draft regulations on how central government can intervene more effectively at a local level.
“Where justified by the evidence, ministers will be able to close whole sectors or types of premises in an area, introduce local stay-at-home orders, prevent people entering or leaving defined areas, reduce the size of gatherings beyond the national defined rules or restrict transport systems serving local areas.”
On people returning to work, Johnson said: “What we are saying, is from 1 August, if they can talk to their employees, if everybody can discuss it in a serious and grown-up way, if we can be confident that the places of work are Covid-secure – which I’m sure we can – then employers, working with their employees, should be encouraging people to get back to work where that is right for that employee. That’s what we are saying.
“And they should use public transport if they need to. Though, of course, where possible, alternative means should also be used.”
Johnson’s announcement came after he held a cabinet call on Friday morning on the next chapter of the government’s coronavirus recovery plan. The government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, and the chief medical officer for England, Prof Chris Whitty, also took part in the update discussion.
It follows Vallance telling MPs on Thursday that he saw “absolutely no reason” for people to stop working from home.
Speaking to the science and technology committee, Vallance said: “I think my view on this, and I think this is a view shared by Sage, is that we’re still at a time when distancing measures are important. And, of the various distancing measures, working from home for many companies remains a perfectly good option because it’s easy to do.”
Vallance’s comments appeared to contrast with Johnson’s remarks earlier in the week, in which he said: “What I want to see is people now who have been working from home for a long time, talking to employers, talking to their place of work, about the steps that have been taken, and looking to come back to work in a safe way.”