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U.K.'s Boris Johnson unveils 'conditional' easing of lockdown

Before the prime minister's speech, there was a change in the government's central message in its fight against the coronavirus, decried by critics as being ambiguous.
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LONDON — U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson unveiled his road map for easing coronavirus lockdown restrictions Sunday, even as the country's death toll continued to rise in Europe's deadliest outbreak. Nearly 32,000 people in the U.K. have died in the pandemic.

In a televised address, Johnson, who battled the coronavirus himself, outlined a series of staggered steps for exiting the lockdown, which he said would be "conditional" on how diligently the public follows the government's advice.

Johnson said that with the death rate and hospital admissions coming down, it would be "madness" to throw away the achievement by allowing a second spike. At the same time, he said, the lockdown measures have come at a colossal cost to Britain's way of life.

"Millions of people are both fearful of this terrible disease but at the same time also fearful of what this long period of enforced inactivity will do to their livelihoods and their mental and physical well-being," the prime minister added.

Full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak

In what he called "a sense of a way ahead," Johnson said he would establish a five-level alert system to help detect local flare-ups and give a national picture of the spread of the virus.

The alert level will tell the government how tough social distancing measures need to be, he said.

Over the seven-week lockdown, Johnson said, the country has been in level 4, and it is now in a position to move to level 3.

But he cautioned: "This is not the time to simply end the lockdown this week. Instead, we are taking the first careful steps to modify our measures."

Starting this week in England, he said, anyone who can't work from home — like those in construction or manufacturing — should be actively encouraged to go back to work, as new guidelines will be established for employers to make workplaces COVID-19-secure.

Starting Wednesday, the government will also allow unlimited outdoor exercise while obeying social distancing rules, with increased fines for those who don't.

By June 1, at the earliest, the phased-in reopening of shops is planned, and primary school students will be allowed to return to their schools in phases.

Johnson said he hoped to reopen "at least some" of the hospitality industry and other public places by July.

Johnson's message came after many Britons flocked to parks and public areas over the weekend, taking advantage of the sunshine, as police said they were "fighting a losing battle" enforce social distancing guidelines.

"If there are problems, we won't hesitate to put on the brakes," he warned Sunday. "We have been through the initial peak, but it's coming down the mountain that is often more dangerous."

Full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak

Ahead of his speech, there was a change in the government's central message from "stay at home" to "stay alert," something critics have already derided as ambiguous and confusing.

Opposition members, including shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth, have called for absolute clarity from Johnson, saying there is "no room for nuance" during the pandemic.

Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of Scotland's Parliament, said she learned of the new slogan from newspapers, adding that the plea to stay home remains "her clear message" to Scotland. Her comments were echoed by politicians in Wales.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have the power to make their own decisions on lockdown restrictions.

Johnson's community secretary, Robert Jenrick, defended the new mantra Sunday, telling Sky News that it was right to "update and broaden" the message now that the country is past the peak of the epidemic. He said the public needs to have a broader message "to slowly and cautiously restart the economy and the country."