**This article is continuously updated with the latest developments.
Pubs, restaurants, hotels and hairdressers will re-open from 4 July in England, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on Tuesday (23 June) as part of the new phase of easing social restrictions.
People will also be able to meet indoors and stay overnight with family and friends – with social distancing. Cinemas and museums will also be able to re-open.
The government believes that the coronavirus infection rate is under control, although cases are still higher than in France, Germany and Italy, and former chief scientific adviser Sir David King is among a number of scientists who have expressed concern that the lockdown measures are being eased too quickly.
Meanwhile, UK medical experts have hailed a low-dose steroid treatment dexamethasone as a major breakthrough h in the fight against the coronavirus.
The drug, which has been trialled by Oxford university researchers over the past month, cut the risk of death by a third for patients on ventilators and cut fatalities for patients on oxygen by a fifth.
A ten-day course of the drug only costs £5.40 (€6).
“This is the only drug so far that has been shown to reduce mortality – and it reduces it significantly. It’s a major breakthrough,” said Chief investigator Prof Peter Horby. The government has stockpiled 200,000 courses of the drug and said on Tuesday (16 June) that the NHS will make dexamethasone available to patients.
As of Thursday (25 June), the UK has recorded about 306,862 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 43,081 deaths. As of 5 May, the UK surpassed Italy to have the highest death toll in Europe.
Racial disparities in health outcomes
The UK’s Equalities and Human Rights Commission will launch an inquiry to examine “the loss of lives and livelihoods” of people from different ethnic minorities.
This comes after in a wake of evidence that the death toll from COVID-19 and impact of the pandemic has been disproportionately high among black and ethnic minority people.
Earlier this week, a report by Public Health England revealed that people of Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, other Asian, Caribbean and other Black ethnicity had between a 10% and 50% higher risk of death from coronavirus compared to white Britons.
On Thursday (4 June) Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch told the House of Commons that the higher death toll was not the result of “systemic injustice.”
Easing the lockdown, but with little clarity
PM Boris Johnson outlined plans for the first stages of lifting lockdown measures in a televised address to the nation on Sunday (10 May) evening.
In his speech, Johnson offered a conditional timetable for lifting some of the most stringent lockdown measures, although stressed that care must be taken to avoid a second wave of the virus.
Most significantly, Johnson announced that people arriving in the UK by air will be subject to quarantine, and the government’s “stay at home, save lives” message was swapped in favour of “stay alert.”
On specific subject lacking clarity was the date to reopen schools. The government is pushing for a 1 June start date beginning with primary schools for children aged 4-11. However, opposition from local authorities and teachers’ unions called this plan into question, as over 1,000 primary schools in England are expected to remain closed given the high levels of infection in their communities.
On Sunday (24 May), Johnson confirmed that schools in England will be reopening as planned.
Confusion also came in early June. MPs faced the bizarre spectacle of queuing for over 40 minutes in socially-distanced lines outside the House of Commons to vote for an end to voting from home on 2 June.
Lawmakers have been using a “hybrid” system, with some in the Commons chamber, and some appearing via video link since Parliament re-opened in mid-April. But Conservative minister Jacob Rees-Mogg has argued that Parliament cannot function properly without MPs being physically present in the chamber.
However, the government has been accused of discriminating against those who cannot attend Parliament for age or medical reasons, who will still be able to question the government remotely but not to vote
The Dominic Cummings scandal
Dominic Cummings, chief political advisor to Prime Minister Boris Johnson is set to survive a damaging row over whether he broke the government’s lockdown rules to drive 400 kilometres to stay in a property on his parents’ farm where he and his wife and son self-isolated while suffering coronavirus symptoms.
The official government guidance states that people with coronavirus symptoms are to stay at home and self-isolate for two weeks. Cummings has denied any wrongdoing, arguing that the trip was made to provide childcare for his young son.
Previously, on Sunday (24 May), Prime Minister Boris Johnson insisted that his chief advisor Dominic Cummings had acted “responsibly, legally and with integrity” but failed to head off a damaging row that risks torpedoing public support for the government’s lockdown measures.
Nearly 40 Conservative lawmakers have now called for Cummings to step down and on Tuesday morning (26 May), Douglas Ross, a junior minister in the government, resigned saying that “Cummings’ interpretation of the government advice was not shared by the vast majority of people who have done as the government asked.”
‘We are past the peak’
In a press conference on Thursday (30 April), Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that the UK is “past its coronavirus peak.” The government plans to unveil its exit strategy next week.
“We are past the peak, and we are on the downward slope,” Johnson said and promised that ministers would detail a “comprehensive plan” next week on how to restart the economy, reopen schools and help people travel to work following the coronavirus lockdown.
On Sunday (3 May), ministers submitted plans to ease the lockdown to business leaders and trade unions, proposing a staggering of working hours for employees as a way of preventing overcrowding public transport and public fears about another spike in infection rate.
Boris Johnson’s government is expected to reveal its plans to ease the lockdown later this week, covering schools, commuting and workplace conditions. While surveys indicate that a majority of Britons back the government’s handling of the pandemic, they also suggest that people are unwilling to risk returning to work.
‘Too early’ for life after COVID
UK PM Boris Johnson said on 27 April that it is “too early” to ease up on restrictions now as a second wave would be a “disaster,” stressing the importance of only relaxing measures when they can be sure there will be no second peak.
The government is set to review current lockdown restrictions by early May.
Earlier in April, Labour opposition leader Keir Starmer had urged the government to give its position on “how and when” the lockdown will be eased, as well as the “criteria” for such a decision. “It is no longer about whether the lockdown should be extended,” he added.
Starmer’s comments came after Neil Ferguson, a professor at Imperial College London and scientific advisor to the British government, told BBC Radio 4 on 10 April that the UK’s exit strategy would likely “be targeted by age (or) geography,” suggesting young adults may be the first allowed to resume their normal routines.
According to the UK’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Witty, the UK could be looking at social distancing for the rest of 2020. Scots would also have to learn to “live alongside” the coronavirus with social-distancing measures in place, including into the next year, according to a 26-page report on plans to phase out the lockdown measures published on 23 April.
Witty also told reporters on 22 April that any chances of a vaccine before the end of the year are “very small”, and therefore, a return to normalcy soon is “wholly unrealistic.”
Read more about what to expect in the UK:
- ‘You must stay at home,’ UK cracks down on movement to curb COVID
- UK could suffer 66,000 death toll from COVID-19, US study forecasts
‘Brexit means Brexit’
Brexit negotiations were put on hold on 17 March as the government wrote in a statement that it “will not formally be convening negotiating work strands” due to COVID-19.
Officials were nonetheless exploring possibilities to conduct upcoming talks via video-conferencing calls and, at the time, earmarked a mid-June meeting as the point when it will decide whether to walk away from the talks.
However, Michael Gove, the UK minister in charge of post-Brexit trade with the EU insisted on 27 April that it is “entirely possible” to have a deal by the end of December 2020 and that a tight timeline should ‘concentrate’ minds, brushing aside a recent critical assessment from Brussels.
For more about Brexit, read the following:
- UK to blame hard Brexit on COVID-19, warns EU trade chief
- UK ‘putting Brexit over breathing’ as Johnson opts out of EU COVID scheme
- EU hopes for tangible progress in Brexit talks by June
- Barnier: UK is derailing post-Brexit trade pact
A struggling health system and a few mishaps
The UK has now become one of the worst-affected European countries, according to one of the government’s senior scientific advisers.
Back in March, the PM said in a televised address that a “huge national effort” had been needed to halt the spread, adding the warning that “there will come a moment when no health service in the world could possibly cope because there won’t be enough ventilators, enough intensive care beds, enough doctors and nurses.” To prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed, UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced the creation of a new 250,000-strong corps of “NHS Volunteer Responders” that same day.
On 19 April, the government was forced to admit on 19 April that there had been further delays to their plans to obtain protective kits for NHS staff and care workers and Prime Minister Boris Johnson was discharged from hospital.
Meanwhile, the government has been plunged into fresh confusion on 21 April after it decided to opt-out of an EU procurement scheme for urgently needed medical equipment.
The Foreign Office’s top civil servant, Sir Simon McDonald, told MPs that ministers had made a “political decision” to stay out and source equipment from domestic and international firms, adding that “the UK mission in Brussels briefed ministers about what was available, what was on offer, and the decision is known.”
However, just hours later, McDonald sent a letter to committee chairman Tom Tugendhat retracting his statement. Citing a “misunderstanding,” he stated that no such briefing by the UK Mission in Brussels had taken place.
The health sector also came under attack as hackers have been targeting the health sector hunting for information, including COVID-19 data and vaccine research, according to a joint UK-US warning issued on 5 May.
The UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) and US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) stated that they had identified large-scale ‘password spraying’ campaigns against healthcare bodies and medical research organisations, which hackers try to use commonly used passwords to access accounts.
Hackers from China, Russia and Iran are believed to be behind the attacks.
For more stories on how the NHS has been coping with the virus, click below:
- Boris Johnson says medics saved his life as UK deaths pass 10,000 mark
- UK pushes ahead with contact tracing app; EDPB issues privacy warnings
- UK video games to deliver ‘geotargeted’ COVID-19 warnings to players
- UK opens first COVID hospital but criticism of testing plans mount
- EU’s Brexit negotiator Barnier says he has COVID-19
‘Unprecedented’ economic plans from a ‘war-time’ government
Boris Johnson’s government will “act like any wartime government” and do “whatever it takes,” Chancellor Rishi Sunak told reporters at a press conference on 17 March, describing the government’s plans as “intervention in the economy that would have been unimaginable just a few weeks ago.”
The PM himself told a press conference on 20 March that his government would support the British people in a way “never done before.”
So far, it has enacted a stimulus package, which includes a massive new government loan guarantee scheme for businesses hit by COVID-19, as well as a three month mortgage holiday, worth around 15% of the UK’s total GDP and far exceeds the scale of the rescue measures taken in the wake of the 2008 financial crash.
As part of its “coronavirus job retention scheme”, the government has committed to help pay wages, for the first time in UK history.
However, the UK’s Office for Budgetary Responsibility forecast on 7 April that the UK could suffer a 12% fall in economic output in 2020 and record a budget deficit of over £270 billion.
British Airways, for instance, is going to cut up to 12,000 jobs from its 42,000-strong workforce, after already putting almost 23,000 staff on furlough. BA saw its revenues for the first quarter of 2020 fall by 13% and is anticipating heavy losses over the rest of the year.
In a letter to the company’s staff, chief executive Alex Cruz said that “there is no government bailout standing by for BA,” adding that “we cannot expect the taxpayer to offset salaries indefinitely.”
Besides bailouts, the UK government has said it could buy airlines, bus companies and train operators under public ownership to preserve transport links during the coronavirus outbreak.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told MPs that the government could step in to “prevent companies from going bust” during the pandemic but that any period of public ownership would be a temporary measure.
Meanwhile, four in 10 British pubs face going out of business by September unless they get further financial support from the government to compensate them for lost business from the coronavirus pandemic, according to a survey conducted by the British Beer and Pubs Association, the association announced Thursday (7 May).
It is also calling for the government to extend its grant scheme for hospitality businesses to provide financial support for several months after the end of the lockdown.
For more information on the UK economy in COVID times, check here:
- UK unveils ‘wartime’ €400 billion COVID bailout programme
- UK faces 35% economic slump from COVID-19 lockdown
- LONDON – pubs face last orders
A succession of ‘U-turns’
Prime Minister Boris Johnson eventually put the UK on lockdown on 16 March, dropping his controversial ‘herd immunity’ approach, championed by the government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance.
Vallance had told Sky News that “millions of Britons” will need to contract coronavirus in order to control the impact of the disease which is likely to return “year on year.”
While UK schools were closed from 20 March until further notice and exams due in May and June would be cancelled, the PM also ordered all pubs, bars, restaurants, and cafes to close, urged 65,000 retired doctors and nurses to return to the NHS and announced the import of 2.6 million face masks and 10,000 bottles of hand sanitiser in the last 24 hours.