Boris Johnson’s plan to get England back to normal by Christmas was in chaos last night. The Prime Minister yesterday set out an optimistic vision to ditch social distancing rules as soon as November.
He insisted it was right to ‘plan for the worst, but hope for the best’ as he suggested it was possible that all restrictions could be lifted in time for the festive season.
But just hours later his top scientists – who did not join him for his Downing Street press conference – poured cold water on the idea life could return to normal within months.
England’s chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, said social distancing measures are likely to be necessary ‘for a long period of time’.
Mr Johnson last night also faced claims he is spreading confusion by putting the onus on employers to decide when to bring back staff to offices.
As he set out his roadmap for ending lockdown yesterday, Mr Johnson said he hoped for a ‘more significant return to normality by November’.
The Prime Minister said it was his ‘strong and sincere hope’ that social distancing would come to an end in England in time for Christmas, while suggesting more close contact between families could be allowed sooner.
From the start of next month, bowling alleys, skating rinks and casinos will be allowed to reopen.
He also paved the way for theatres to put on live performances from next month and for sports stadiums to welcome back spectators from October if trials are successful.
Mr Johnson also immediately scrapped the advice to avoid public transport in England.
He committed to a new target of reaching the capacity for 500,000 coronavirus tests per day by November.
At his press conference, the Prime Minister admitted it was ‘possible that the virus will be more virulent in the winter months’.
But he added: ‘Even as we plan for the worst I strongly believe we should hope for the best.
‘That means looking ahead with optimism, now extending our plan to lift the remaining national measures… so we can get back to something closer to normal life.’
Mr Johnson said Sir Patrick and Professor Whitty had taken part in a Cabinet discussion before the relaxation was announced but added: ‘In the end decisions are taken by the elected politicians’.
Appearing before the Lords science committee last night, the two scientific advisers voiced concerns about how infections could spike.
Sir Patrick said it was ‘inevitable’ the relaxation of social distancing measures would lead to a resurgence of cases, and another national lockdown may be necessary. Professor Whitty told the committee that social distancing ‘remains an important part of the mix’ of measures.
Business leaders and trade unions demanded clarity after Mr Johnson said it would be up for employers to hold discussions with staff on who should work from home.
British Chambers of Commerce director general Adam Marshall said ‘crystal clear’ guidance is needed, while CBI deputy director general Josh Hardie called for ‘clarity and consistency’.
Frances O’Grady, of the TUC, said: ‘The Government is passing the buck on this.’
Town halls and ministers have been given powers to impose ‘lightning lockdowns’ to stamp out local outbreaks. Mr Johnson said councils will not have to apply to the Government to close factories or other premises and will be able to cancel events and close outdoor spaces. He also announced draconian powers for ministers to step in, including banning people leaving an area under lockdown.