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Britain’s coronavirus hibernation beginning to end, Johnson declares

Photo by Stefan Rouuseau/PA Wire

By Richard Wheeler, Sophie Morris and George Ryan, PA Political Staff

Britain’s “long national hibernation” is beginning to come to an end, Boris Johnson declared on Tuesday, as he announced a relaxation of coronavirus lockdown rules.

But the Prime Minister cautioned MPs that while “life is returning” to streets and shops, the virus has “not gone away” and he will not hesitate to “apply the brakes” and reintroduce restrictions if required.

He said this could include further national lockdowns, but the preferred approach was to deal with any outbreaks in a localised way.

Labour welcomed the easing of lockdown, with leader Sir Keir Starmer adding he “completely supports” some children returning to school and the “sooner the better” for the safe return of others.

Mr Johnson’s statement to the Commons included confirmation of the two-metre social distancing rule being reduced to “one metre-plus” from July 4, to aid the return of restaurants and pubs from the same day.

Hairdressers will also be allowed to reopen, and people from two households of any size should be able to meet in any setting, although indoor gyms are among the businesses which remain closed.

Speaking in the Commons, Mr Johnson said: “In the first half of May, nearly 69,000 people tested positive for Covid-19 across the UK.”

“By the first half of June that total had fallen by nearly 70% to just under 22,000.”

“The number of new infections is now declining by between 2% and 4% every day.”

“Four weeks ago an average of one in 400 people in the community in England had Covid-19 – in the first half of June this figure was one in 1,700.”

On social distancing, the PM said: “Given the significant fall in the prevalence of the virus we can change the two-metre social distancing rule from July 4.”

He added: “Where it is possible to keep two metres apart, people should.”

“But where it is not, we will advise people to keep a social distance of one metre-plus, meaning they should remain one metre apart while taking mitigations to reduce the risk of transmission.”

Mr Johnson said the fewer social contacts people have, the safer they will be, and every step in easing the lockdown is “scrupulously weighed”.

On different households meeting up, the PM explained: “That does not mean they must always be the same two households, it will be possible for instance to meet one set of grandparents one weekend, the others the following weekend.”

“But we are not recommending meetings of multiple households indoors because of the risk of creating greater chains of transmission.”

He concluded to MPs: “Today we can say that our long national hibernation is beginning to come to an end and life is returning to our streets and to our shops, the bustle is starting to come back and a new but cautious optimism is palpable.”

“But I must say to the House it will be all too easy for that frost to return, and that is why we will continue to trust in the common sense and the community spirit of the British people to follow this guidance, to carry us through and to see us to victory over this virus.”

For Labour, Sir Keir said: “I believe the Government is trying to do the right thing, and in that we will support them.”

He also asked when the full NHS Track and Trace system will be in place, noting: “The Prime Minister will know we have got very serious concerns about the gaps in the current system, including the absence of an app."

“Getting this right is essential to unlocking in a safe manner.”

Mr Johnson said it would be “great to have an app” before claiming “no country currently has a functioning track and trace app”. He then outlined the test and trace programme.

SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford cautioned: “The virus has not gone away. The margins for ensuring the virus does not take off again remain tight.

“Keeping people safe remains the first priority. We cannot put a price on human life.”

Mr Johnson replied: “(Mr Blackford) is right to express the caution that he does, he’s right to anticipate the risk of second spikes.”

“And that is, I’m afraid, that we will see future outbreaks and I must be absolutely clear with the House about that.”

“We will see future outbreaks and we will be in a much better position now to control those outbreaks.”

The PM also defended the 14-day quarantine period for arrivals to the UK, calling it the “right thing to do”, following pressure from Tory and opposition MPs to drop it.