LONDON • The coronavirus lockdown will ease next week for most of Britain’s population, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced, as a row persisted over his closest adviser taking a long-distance journey during the shutdown.
In England, up to six people will be able to meet outside and schools will gradually reopen from Monday, Mr Johnson said on Thursday.
“These changes mean that friends and family can start to meet their loved ones, perhaps seeing both parents at once or grandparents at once,” he said, adding that outdoor retailers and car showrooms would also be able to reopen from Monday.
“You could have meetings of families in a garden, you could even have a barbecue provided you did it in a socially distanced way, provided everybody washes their hands, provided everybody exercises common sense.”
Mr Johnson stressed that the changes were “small tentative steps forward”, and health experts warned the situation remained finely balanced with new cases declining, but not very quickly.
The devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are responsible for their own public health policy.
Mr Johnson’s announcement came hours after more lawmakers from his Conservative Party called for his aide Dominic Cummings to quit over his decision to drive 400km during the lockdown.
The Daily Mail newspaper, citing sources, meanwhile reported that Mr Cummings is considering quitting later this year.
Mr Cummings travelled from London to the northern English city of Durham in March with his young son and his wife, who was sick, to be close to relatives.
A YouGov opinion poll showed a majority of Britons think he should resign for – in their view – breaking the lockdown rules, but Mr Johnson has said Mr Cummings acted with integrity.
The Prime Minister also faces criticism for his handling of a pandemic that has left Britain with the world’s second-highest death toll.
At Thursday’s news conference, Mr Johnson blocked questions from journalists put to his top medical and scientific officials about Mr Cummings’ behaviour. He said he wanted to “protect them from … an unfair and unnecessary attempt to ask a political question”.
The dispute over Mr Cummings has caused some to lose faith in the government’s strategy, with many people unable to understand how a senior official could be considered not to have broken the rules by driving across the country when the government repeatedly told people to “stay home” and “save lives”.
The move to ease lockdown measures came as England launched a new testing and contact tracing system for Covid-19 patients, seen as crucial to helping ease lockdown measures.
Contacts of those who test positive for Covid-19 will be asked to isolate themselves for 14 days, even if they have no symptoms.
The tracing service, which will have a task force of 40,000 specialists to test those with symptoms and identify their contacts, will initially rely on what the government describes as people doing their “civic duty”, but sanctions may be introduced if people do not comply.
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have similar schemes just about to launch or are already running.
Britain abandoned a strategy of testing and tracing in March when the virus started spreading exponentially and there was insufficient capacity to test more than a fraction of those with symptoms.
Official data shows that more than 48,000 Britons have died from confirmed or suspected cases of Covid-19.
Meanwhile, Britons took to their doorsteps and balconies on Thursday to show their appreciation for health workers on the front line of the coronavirus crisis.
The Clap for Carers initiative has for the last 10 weeks been an emotional moment of solidarity among citizens enduring sweeping social restrictions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.