Boris Johnson is mulling a blueprint to loosen the coronavirus lockdown that could let people mix with relatives and friends in ‘bubbles’ – as well as reopening rubbish tips as early as this weekend.
Britons could be allowed to choose 10 people they can socialise with in an easing of draconian restrictions that have split families over the past month – despite the risk that the outbreak could return.
Ministers are also looking at getting public services such as tips up and running in a matter of days if the authorities give the green light they can cope with the expected rush of people looking to dump six weeks of waste.
Garden centres and other shops where social distancing can be enforced could follow shortly afterwards, while ministers are also drawing up plans to fire up railways as more of the nation’s workforce is allowed to return.
Public transport routes have been operating a significantly cut-back timetable and officials are reportedly mulling how to expand services while maintaining social distancing.
Passengers will likely be instructed to fashion a homemade mask while floor markings will enforce a two-metre separation rule, a source familiar to the high-level discussions told the Daily Telegraph.
The outline of the plan is emerging after the PM returned to work yesterday and braced the public for a ‘new normal’ which will juggle the need to rescue the economy while limiting the threat of the infection running rampant again.
The Prime Minister, who completed his first day back in charge at Number 10, yesterday said the country was emerging from the first phase of the epidemic, in a speech which offered the first chinks of light out of lockdown.
The plans were revealed on a day that saw:
- Hospital deaths from coronavirus drop below 400 for the first time in four weeks;
- Boris Johnson liken his personal battle with coronavirus to a mugging;
- Matt Hancock insist the NHS was open for patients with other illnesses and said cancer treatments would be restored;
- It emerge that he may not be able to confirm whether he has met his 100,000-a-day testing target on the deadline of this Thursday;
- A fleet of rapid-response testing units is being set up to stop a coronavirus resurgence;
- Small firms able to get interest-free loans of up to £50,000 under a fast-track scheme;
- It revealed four million workers have been furloughed by 500,000 firms, costing the Treasury £4.5billion;
- Chancellor Rishi Sunak say he was planning a ‘gradual’ winding-down of the scheme;
- Traffic data suggest drivers are returning to the roads amid lockdown fatigue;
- Rising numbers of children be admitted to intensive care with symptoms linked to coronavirus;
- Ministers braced for grim figures on deaths in care homes, where shortages of PPE have been acute;
- An education watchdog warn of the impact of school closures on children from vulnerable backgrounds.
Back at the helm after three weeks recovering from his own battle with the virus, Mr Johnson was on top form as he chaired meetings with his most senior ministers.
The 55-year-old premier ditched Zoom despite appeals from advisers to avoid appearing in person and walked confidently into a packed cabinet room for his 9.15 am meeting.
Social distancing rules were ‘pushed to the limit’, with so many ministers back at Number 10, according to The Times.
During Mr Johnson’s absence, his de facto deputy Dominic Raab has remained tight-lipped over an exit strategy out lockdown.
But reports from insiders last night suggested a plan had been fleshed out for the country to creep out of lockdown.
Of one of the most eye-catching plans to insist on masks, a Whitehall source told the Telegraph: ‘The plan for masks will be more than a recommendation. It is more of a compulsion for them to be worn in shops and on public transport.
‘On social distancing, transport bosses will need to have two-metre markers in place so people can safely keep their distance.’
The PM hinted at a change to the lockdown yesterday morning as he addressed the nation on the steps of Downing Street.
In his first public appearance since he was hospitalised with coronavirus, Mr Johnson said he had been ‘away from my desk for much longer than I would’ve liked’.
He said: ‘Once again I want to thank you the people of this country for the sheer grit and guts you’ve shown and are continuing to show.
‘Every day I know that this virus brings new sadness and mourning to households across the land.’
Mr Johnson said: ‘It is still true that this is the biggest single challenge this country has faced since the war and I in no way minimise the continuing problems we face.
‘And yet it is also true that we are making progress with fewer hospital admissions, fewer COVID patients in ICU and real signs now that we are passing through the peak.
‘And thanks to your forbearance, your good sense your altruism, your spirit of community, thanks to our collective national resolve, we are on the brink of achieving that first clear mission to prevent our National Health Service from being overwhelmed in a way that tragically we have seen elsewhere.
‘And that is how and why we are now beginning to turn the tide.’
Mr Johnson, drawing on his own battle with Covid-19 which put him in intensive care, said: ‘If this virus were a physical assailant, an unexpected and invisible mugger – which I can tell you from personal experience, it is – then this is the moment when we have begun together to wrestle it to the floor.
‘And so it follows that this is the moment of opportunity, this is the moment when we can press home our advantage, it is also the moment of maximum risk.
‘I know there will be many people looking at our apparent success, and beginning to wonder whether now is the time to go easy on those social distancing measures.’
He said he understood ‘how hard and stressful it has been to give up, even temporarily, those ancient and basic freedoms’.
But he said the potential of a second spike in cases risked ‘economic disaster’.
Mr Johnson added: ‘And so I know it is tough. And I want to get this economy moving as fast as I can, but I refuse to throw away all the effort and the sacrifice of the British people and to risk a second major outbreak and huge loss of life and the overwhelming of the NHS.’
Mr Johnson’s words about the end of the first phase evoked Churchill’s famous 1942 speech after the Allies defeated Rommel’s forces at El Alamein.
The wartime PM said: ‘This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.’
It is understood Mr Johnson’s pregnant fiancee Carrie Symonds, who was with him at Chequers during his recuperation, has also moved back into Downing Street. She has also recovered from coronavirus.
Mr Johnson has returned to work ‘full time’, taking back all of the responsibilities handed over to Dominic Raab, Downing Street said.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: ‘He’s back full time. In terms of responsibilities and duties, he will be doing all of those.’
Mr Johnson is expected to chair Cabinet on Thursday, but the plan for PMQs is not yet clear.
The PM’s official spokesman said he would be speaking to Sir Keir Starmer soon to discuss the way forward – although the idea of a government of national unity has been dismissed.
‘He plans to speak with the leader of the Opposition this week and the leaders of all the Westminster parties next week, hopefully alongside the chief medical officer and the chief scientific adviser,’ the spokesman said.
Allies have suggested the premier is ready to act earlier than May 7 to get UK plc up and running again, with hints the blanket ‘stay at home’ message from Whitehall will be ditched in favour of a more nuanced stance stressing the public should work where possible.