On 10 May 2020, Prime Minister Boris Johnson addressed the nation announcing the first baby steps towards lifting the UK-wide lockdown. The “conditional plan,” was limited, and the PM’s speech was brief, with many finding it to further confuse advice which was already lacking in clarity.
Although the PM’s advice was expanded a few days later in a 51-page dossier, many say guidelines lack coherence and are full of contradictions. Meanwhile, police and civil liberties groups have expressed concerns on how the new measures will be enforced.
On Monday, the PM announced that England was being moved from level four to level three, on the government five-tier Coronavirus alert system. In this system, five is “critical” and represents the NHS being completely “overwhelmed” with “rapid spreading” of the virus. Meanwhile, one represents the virus no longer being present in the UK.
In accordance with this, the “Stay Home” message, which has been ritually repeated throughout the crisis, has now been rebranded to “Stay Alert”. Speaking to BBC’s Andrew Marr, Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick, has said that this means: “Staying home as much as possible, but stay alert when you do go out, by maintaining social distancing, washing your hands, respecting others in the workplace and the other settings that you’ll go to”.
As part of this new “Stay Alert” message, there have been some changes to the COVID-19 restrictions. This includes reopening sectors such as food production, manufacturing and construction. As such, the government’s new advice states that those who cannot work from home, should travel to work if their workplace is open. However, advice also states that workers should avoid public transport, opting instead for walking or cycling. Where individuals must use public transportation, it is advised that they comply with social distancing measures as much as possible and wear face masks. The PM also stated that the workplaces employees are returning to should be “Covid secure”.
Workers such as cleaners, and plumbers can also return back to work, and visit client’s houses. In these scenarios, strict hygiene rules should be adhered to. Although, if an individual is self-isolating, this is prohibited.
The new measures also enable people to visit one person outside of their household in a public place, while keeping 2 metres apart. “Unlimited exercise,” is also now permitted.
However, in England, the 2 metre guidance is not in fact law, and is not included within the regulations.
The new measures have been received with disapproval and confusion by politicians and the public alike. The First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon said last week that lifting measures too prematurely could be “potentially catastrophic”. She also expressed disdain for No.10’s communication strategy, which she said was lacking, considering that the devolved nations were informed of the slogan change via the Sunday Telegraph. Reflecting on this decision, she said: “We should not be reading of each other’s plans in newspapers”. Sturgeon has since refused to accept the “ambiguous” slogan. Northern Ireland and Wales have also accompanied Scotland in its rejection of the slogan, along with Newcastle and Gateshead.
Meanwhile, Professor Susan Michie, Behavioural Expert and part of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) has said the “Stay Alert” slogan is unhelpful. Further to this, she stated that it is likely people will perceive the message as a “green light” to socialise. Stephen Griffin, an Associate Professor in the School of Medicine at the University of Leeds added: “It feels as though the ethos that advice from the scientific community should guide policy has been abandoned”.
The announcement was followed by a further lack of clarity, when Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab stated that those who can return to work safely, should on Wednesday 13 May. This was a direct contradiction of the PM’s statement on Sunday, which advised workers to return by Monday 11 May. All of this was stated prior to the release of the government’s 51-page dossier, entitled “Our Plan to Rebuild”.
Already, the consequences of the government’s vague advice are being seen. On Wednesday 13 May, pictures were released of packed London Underground services, as people returned to work. Many were without masks, and unable to comply with social distancing measures.
Speaking about the potential dangers of this, the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) Union said that the situation was “fraught with danger” as a result of the PM’s advice. Speaking to Sky News, Mick Cash, the General Secretary, said that strikes would be enforced if the situation was not addressed in order to ensure the safety of both staff and passengers.
On top of this, further concerns have been raised by the Police Federation for England and Wales, on how police are expected to deal with the new lockdown measures. Although the dossier outlines which kinds of outdoor activities citizens can partake in, it doesn’t contain examples of what constitutes breaking the law.
Speaking about this vague guidance, Darren Harris, Chairman of the Suffolk Police Federation said: “As of Wednesday, there will be uncertainty – and there needs to be some strong guidance from the government about what’s expected. You can only play the hand you’re dealt. The public need clarity on what’s expected of them, in order for them to police it themselves”. Additionally, while Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has said that people should “use some common sense,” Harris says, this advice does not go far enough. “We talk about common sense, but my interpretation might be different from the next person – and some will twist the law to make it fit for their purpose”.
Despite mass confusion, fines have also now been increased for those who break social distancing measures. The minimum fine for this is now £100. This doubles each time a person commits an “offence”. The maximum an individual will be fined is £3,200. Failure to pay this fine may result in jail time.
Civil liberties groups such as Liberty, have expressed fears that the measures will result in more “overzealous” policing with, “police forces acting beyond the scope of these powers”. Considering that police have already overstepped the mark numerous times, Clare Collier Advocacy Director at Liberty, said that muddying the waters with unclear lockdown measures is a “recipe for injustice”.
She added: “This pandemic is a public health crisis, not a criminal justice issue. The Government has had seven weeks to fix the police powers and create a rights-focused strategy that provides care for those at risk. Instead, with these regulations it’s doubling down on a heavy-handed approach that will undermine public trust and cause lasting harm to people’s lives. The police service’s powers must be rolled back and greater clarity provided to enable us all to understand what we can and cannot do.”
Further undermining public trust, others have highlighted that the government has unnecessarily avoided complying with proper procedure through “by-passing parliament” with these measures. When the PM announced the new policies via a television broadcast on Monday, he contravened an important constitutional principle. Outlined in Ministerial Code, the PM must present announcements to parliament, before addressing the public. In his article, “A very English lockdown relaxation,” Tom Hickman QC, UCL and Blackstone Chambers, makes a very salient point. While by-passing was enabled through the “emergency procedure” under s.45R of the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984, “by reason of urgency,” a relaxation of lockdown measures is not an “urgent public health reason”.
Finally, what is undeniable, is that many of these measures are not in fact changes to law, but instead changes to guidance and advice. Environment Minister George Eustice was certainly correct when he said that there would be “no dramatic overnight change”. For the time being, the UK public will be subject to endure only illusionary freedoms, and fear of unjust fines.