Prime Minister Boris Johnson will talk his cabinet through his plans for easing the UK’s lockdown on Tuesday after officials reported the lowest number of daily deaths since restrictions were imposed.
The prime minister said last month that non-essential retailers would be able to reopen on June 15 if the threat of the virus continued to recede, and Health Secretary Matt Hancock said Monday’s positive data means the government can press on with its plans.
“Coronavirus is in retreat across the land,” Hancock told the House of Commons as he reported 55 fatalities, the lowest daily number since March 22. “Those downward trends mean that we can proceed with our plans, but we do so putting caution and safety first.”
Johnson, who is battling plunging poll ratings as he seeks to navigate a route to reopen the British economy while avoiding a second spike in infections, has been under pressure to accelerate the removal of restrictions that closed stores and businesses and stopped people spending time with their families and friends.
Lawmakers from his Conservative Party added to the demands as they called for the two-meter social distancing limit to be halved to help the beleaguered hospitality industry. Pubs and restaurants are working toward July 4 for the limited reopening of outdoor areas but say many will be unviable 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-filed Tory lawmakers, said the current limit needs to be reviewed.
Spain and Canada have joined the UK 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 UK’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.”
Johnson linked the pandemic to the Black Lives Matter protests as he urged people involved to keep their distance from each other in a video message on Monday evening. The feelings of injustice at the heart of the movement are based in “cold reality,” he said, but they shouldn’t drive people to act in ways that will lead to a resurgence of the disease.
He condemned the violence of some protesters and damage to property, including the toppling of a statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol, southwest England, but said work needs to be done to tackle prejudice and promote equality in Britain.
“To all those who have chosen to protest peacefully and who have insisted on social distancing, I say, yes of course I hear you, and I understand,” Johnson said. “Let’s work peacefully, lawfully, to defeat racism and discrimination wherever we find it, and let us continue to work together across all the communities of this country as we put Britain back on its feet.”