In Depth

Reaction: Boris Johnson faces ‘backlash’ over coronavirus lockdown exit plan

New road map ‘offers hope to fiscal hawks’ but is ‘too vague’, say critics

Boris Johnson is under fire after revealing a “conditional plan” to relax the UK’s lockdown rules that includes allowing people in England to spend more time outdoors from Wednesday.

In a televised speech from Downing Street on Sunday, the prime minister said that a new “Covid Alert System” with five levels of severity would dictate how quickly the restrictions could be eased, but that people who cannot do their job from home should return to work while avoiding public transport. 

The address was “immediately condemned as being divisive, confusing and vague”, says The Guardian

A decision to “drop the ‘stay at home’ message in favour of advice to ‘stay alert’ was met with a chorus of disapproval from the leaders of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales”, the newspaper adds, with Nicola Sturgeon warning that the “imprecise” message could have “catastrophic” consequences north of the border.

Johnson said that he had “reached a consensus” with the devolved governments over the UK’s exit plan, but the Scottish first minister claims that “she knew nothing about the new slogan until she read about it in Sunday newspapers”, according to The Telegraph.

The findings of a new YouGov poll suggests that the wider public are also feeling somewhat confused, with just three in ten Britons saying they know what the new “stay alert, control the virus, save lives” message is asking them to do. 

And the nation appears to be split about the decision to relax the lockdown rules, with the move supported by 44% of the more than 6,500 people surveyed, while 43% were opposed. 

Labour leader Keir Starmer is calling for greater clarity from the government on the new guidelines, saying that the prime minister “appears to be effectively telling millions of people to go back to work” without the necessary guidance. 

“We haven’t got the guidelines, and we don’t know how it’s going to work with public transport, so there’s a huge number of questions arising out of this,” Starmer said. 

The Times reports that Johnson is also facing “a backlash from union leaders and some businesses over the lack of detail in the road map”. 

Made UK, which represents British manufacturers, has expressed concerns that businesses may be “punished” for violating social distancing rules. 

“In many parts of manufacturing, people will need to work much more closely than two metres apart,” said Made UK chief executive Stephen Phipson. “It is vital that the guidance is explicit about how this may be achieved safely.”

This call was echoed by Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, who said: “The government still hasn’t published guidance on how workers will be kept safe. So how can the prime minister - with 12 hours’ notice - tell people they should be going back to sites and factories?”

However, some business leaders have responded more positively to Johnson’s speech, with the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) saying that the plan is the “first glimmer of light for our faltering economy”. 

Carolyn Fairbairn, the CBI’s director general, said: “A phased and careful return to work is the only way to protect jobs and pay for future public services.”

Johnson’s speech has also won applause from The Times’ political sketch writer Quentin Letts, who says that “most fair observers will surely reckon he did this pretty well”, offering “just a hint of release from the national imprisonment”. 

“His script, delivered slowly and with heavy shoulder shuffles, had a couple of distinctive Boris touches…. Otherwise this was a flourish-free address, its seriousness striking,” Letts adds.

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But fellow commentator Piers Morgan remains unimpressed and has delivered what the Daily Mirror describes as a “scathing attack” on the PM.

Returning to his duties as Good Morning Britain host today after testing positive for coronavirus, Morgan said: “I feel fine except I feel extremely frustrated by what I watched last night.  I don’t know where it leaves us and I don’t understand the sequence of events here.

“Boris Johnson clears 15 minutes of prime time, Sunday night television to address the nation. And you expect when you get that amount of time on a Sunday night at seven o’clock you would get loads of great detail that clears everything up.

“Instead we got a load of his usual flim-flam, his bluster, his bellicose, fist-pumping rhetoric. But when it gets to the detail, I don’t know where it leaves us.”

Politico agrees that despite the “somber” tone of Johnson’s speech, “those looking for clarity will likely have been disappointed”.

“The plan offers hope to the fiscal hawks who have been pushing the prime minister to open up the economy,” the news site says. “However, the statement, along with a new government slogan urging people to ‘stay alert,’ will do little to convince those who accuse Johnson of failing to be precise.”

Further details of the PM’s plan will be set out in a 50-page document to be tabled in Parliament this afternoon.

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