Johnson Continues U.K. Lockdown Easing But Retreats on Schools

U.K. Prime Minister Johnson will talk his cabinet through his plans for easing the U.K.’s lockdown on Tuesday.

Johnson Continues U.K. Lockdown Easing But Retreats on Schools
Pedestrians maintain social distancing to collect food parcels from the food bank run by Dads House charity in London, U.K. (Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg)

(Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister Boris Johnson talked his cabinet through his road map for easing the U.K.’s coronavirus lockdown on Tuesday but was forced to abandon a plan for all primary school children to return before September.

Non-essential retailers will be allowed to reopen from June 15, Business Secretary Alok Sharma announced later, hours after Education Secretary Gavin Williamson told Parliament schools will not be able to fully reopen before the summer holidays.

“While we are not able to welcome all primary children back for a full month before the summer, we continue to work with the sector on the next steps,” Williamson said. “We continue to follow the best scientific advice and believe that this cautious, phased return is the most sensible course of action to take.”

Teacher unions and local education authorities have complained of a lack of consultation over the wider reopening of schools, which have provided face-to-face teaching for the children of key workers and remote learning materials for those staying at home during lockdown. They said the government’s plans were unworkable and it would be impossible to return to full school rolls while keeping children two meters apart.

“It has taken the government some time to recognize what was obvious to most,” Mary Bousted, general secretary of the National Education Union said in a statement. “The government’s social distancing rules made it impossible for primary schools to admit all pupils before the summer holidays.”

Plunging Polls

Johnson, who suffered plunging poll ratings as his virus strategy was criticized, has been under pressure to lift the restrictions that closed stores and businesses. He must balance that with the risk of a second peak of infections. Fully reopening schools would free parents to return to work, and the acknowledgment that for many this won’t be before September is a setback to his plans to reboot the economy.

In order to open, shops will have to conduct safety assessments, Sharma said. But he refused to be drawn on the question of whether the two-meter social distancing limit should be halved.

Members of Parliament from Johnson’s Conservative Party say that is essential to help the beleaguered hospitality industry. Pubs and restaurants are working toward July 4 for the limited reopening of outdoor areas but say many won’t be viable if customers still have to stay two meters apart.

Cutting the distance “is the only way that we are going to save millions of jobs in hospitality over the next few months,” former cabinet minister Theresa Villiers told the House of Commons on Monday. Graham Brady, chairman of the influential 1922 committee of rank-and-file Tory lawmakers, said the current limit needs to be reviewed.

Two-Meter Limit

Spain and Canada have joined the U.K. in adopting the two-meter limit, but the World Health Organization recommends people should stay only a meter apart, the distance favored by China and France. Denmark cut its limit to one meter from two on May 10.

Hancock said the advice from the U.K.’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies is clear that the closer people are, the more likely they are to spread the virus and any change to the distance would have to be seen “in the round” with other restrictions.

“We keep the two-meter rule under review all of the time, and SAGE have been doing some work on this recently,” Hancock told the daily virus briefing later Monday. “But ultimately it isn’t the rule that’s the challenge to the opening of hospitality in a safe way, it’s the virus, and we have to find ways to be able to reopen the economy in a way that doesn’t lead to the increased spread of the virus.”

The U.K. is likely to relax its strict quarantine policy for new arrivals on June 29, introducing travel corridors with some countries, according to tourism lobby group Quash Quarantine, which said it had received private assurances from senior government figures.

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