As we enter a hot and sunny weekend it appears that the government has eased lockdown restrictions in England despite the coronavirus threat level remaining “high.” The easing guidelines come into force on June 1, but will the current rules be adhered to over the sizzling Saturday and Sunday.
During yesterday’s briefing the PM was expected to lower the threat level from 4 to 3 when he announced restrictions would be eased – but failed to mention it.
On Wednesday during the House of Commons Liaison Committee, before the lockdown-easing announcement, the Johnson instructed MPs: “We’re coming down from level 4 to level 3 we hope, we’re taking a decision tomorrow.”
However, today the PM’s official spokesman admitted the Covid threat level remains at 4 – indicating that transmission of the virus is still “high.
He said: “It is four, the PM said at the Liaison Commitee it was moving downwards but it remains in level four… you have the PM’s words from earlier this week which sets out the position.
“In terms of moving towards the steps we announced yesterday, that was always dependent on meeting the five tests, which we are currently doing.”
While the PM gave the go-ahead to barbeques, Patrick Vallance was more cautious – warning the R reproduction rate was still “close to 1” and that nearly 8,000 new daily infections is “not a low number”.
The Prime Minister’s announcement that six people can meet up outdoors from Monday – made just before a weekend forecast to be hot and sunny – looks like it was “rushed forward to help ministers in a difficult position”, a police and crime commissioner has said.
Downing Street has warned the public that socially-distanced, six-people meet-ups remain prohibited in England until Monday.
But with temperatures expected to soar to 26C this weekend there are fears Boris Johnson’s announcement, made on Thursday evening, will result in a difficult couple of days for authorities.
Northumbria’s Labour Police and Crime Commissioner Kim McGuinness said: “One of the hallmarks of the Government’s handling of this deadly pandemic has sadly been a series of mistimed and badly explained messages.
“By pre-announcing changes to lockdown ahead of a tempting weekend of sunshine, the PM must have known he was going to create a situation that is difficult to police.
“The messaging looks like it was rushed forward to help ministers in a difficult position.
“When our country eventually gets through this and the inevitable inquiry into the Government’s handling takes place, the communications plan, or the lack of, will have to be part of that.
“My message to people is to follow the latest guidelines, avoid large groups and be patient as we seek to reduce the R number and slow the spread of this deadly virus.”
Meanwhile Labour councillor Ian Gilbert, from Southend on Sea Borough Council in Essex, said the timings of a number of Government announcements “haven’t been helpful”.
Asked if he thinks Mr Johnson should have waited until Sunday to announce changes to the rules on Monday, Mr Gilbert said: “Yes. I think, from our point of view, in terms of managing public spaces, absolutely.
“Unfortunately I think the whole way that the debate has gone over the past week, with the business about (Number 10 aide Dominic) Cummings and what have you, has all unfortunately contributed to a general sense that lockdown is over.”
Mr Gilbert said Southend attractions will remain closed over the weekend, and he urged people from outside the borough to “think twice” before visiting.
Elsewhere, Richard Leafe, chief executive of the Lake District National Park Authority, is urging people to “show care and consideration for everyone who lives and works” in the area.
As well as asking people not to light barbecues, Mr Leafe said: “Please take heed of the current Government guidelines which state no overnight stays and only meeting with one other person from another household at this time.”
Hastings Borough Council leader Kim Forward said local authorities were not consulted on plans to allow six people to meet up.
She said the council is ”driven by putting residents’ safety first”, adding: “Like other councils, we were not consulted about this, nor previous easings of the lockdown measures announced by Government and the impact on our town.”
The council’s deputy leader Colin Fitzgerald said Hastings has one of the lowest rates of infection in the country, adding: “This will only remain the case if we are careful and responsible.
“We have had reports over the weekend of people defecating and urinating in the town’s open spaces because the toilets are closed.
“This isn’t acceptable at any time, but it especially not during a global pandemic.”
Elsewhere, the City of London Corporation, which has open spaces including Hampstead Heath, Epping Forest, West Ham Park, and Burnham Beeches, said there were reports of some large group gatherings, including one of more than 100 people, over the bank holiday weekend.
It is urging all visitors to act responsibly and follow social distancing guidelines this weekend.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “We’ve said that wherever possible we would give a period of notice in advance of changes being made, ideally 48 hours or more, which is true in this respect.
“The current regulations are in force until Monday.”
Downing Street said police do not have the powers to enter gardens to check on the six-person rule under coronavirus legislation.
The PM’s official spokesman added: “I’m sure that members of the public will show common sense and will want to abide by the rules, police will have the power to enforce the regulations using the proportional and pragmatic approach they’ve taken so far.”
He said further guidance will be published on Friday.
Temperatures in England are expected to hit highs of 26C over the weekend, and then climb further to 29C by Tuesday.
Met Office meteorologist Alex Burkill warned there will be very high levels of UV.
“It’s not particularly often in May that we get such high levels of UV for such a prolonged period of time,” he said. “High levels of UV means that there’s a very high risk of people getting sunburned.”