Boris Johnson eased the work-from-home guidance and paved the way for theatres and sports stadiums to reopen as he set out plans for a “significant return to normality” in England from as early as November.
The Prime Minister said on Friday that it will be up to employers to discuss with workers whether it is safe to return from August 1, as he detailed new measures to tackle the coronavirus pandemic.
From that date, he said, most remaining leisure centres will reopen and indoor performances with live audiences can resume if pilots are successful, while trials will begin for sports stadiums to reopen from October.
Mr Johnson also immediately scrapped the advice to avoid public transport in England and detailed plans to extinguish local outbreaks of coronavirus to avoid another national shutdown.
“It is my strong and sincere hope that we will be able to review the outstanding restrictions and allow a more significant return to normality from November, at the earliest, possibly in time for Christmas,” he added.
But the relaxation of the strict rules will bring the nation into a new normal, with mask-wearing and social distancing remaining essential parts of life for now.
The PM’s easing of the work-from-home guidance potentially pits him against his chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, who earlier said there is “absolutely no reason” to change the advice.
But the PM told his Downing Street press conference: “It is not for government to decide how employers should run their companies and whether they want their workforces in the office or not – that is for companies.”
In response to a question from the public, the PM said it “may conceivably be possible” to depart from social distancing measures “by November at the earliest”.
Chief medical officer for England Professor Chris Whitty has previously warned that social distancing measures will need to stay in place until the discovery of a vaccine or highly-effective drugs to reduce Covid-19’s severity.
And on Friday, he told a Lords committee social distancing “remains an important part of this mix” of measures to stem the disease’s spread, which will “need to continue for a long period of time”.
Newly-released documents also showed scientists advising the Government said on June 22 they do not believe it is possible to return to “pre-Covid normality” without contact tracing and other measures that would “be difficult to achieve” unless a vaccine is found.
Mr Johnson said Sir Patrick and Prof Whitty had taken part in a Cabinet discussion before the relaxation was announced but said “in the end decisions are taken by the elected politicians”.
From next month, wedding receptions for up to 30 people can resume, and bowling lanes, skating rinks, casinos and beauticians can reopen as long as they have measures in place to reduce Covid-19 transmission.
Pilots to reopen sports stadiums will include the World Snooker Championship in Sheffield from July 31 and the Glorious Goodwood horse racing festival from August 1.
Nightclubs and soft play areas, however, will have to remain closed.
In an attempt to prevent another nationwide shutdown, Mr Johnson said local authorities in England will have new powers from Saturday to close specific premises, shut outdoor spaces and cancel events.
Ministers will also be able to close entire sectors or types of premises in an area and issue “stay at home” orders, Mr Johnson said.
He also set out his plans to prepare the NHS for a potential second spike in Covid-19 cases coinciding with the flu season this winter, saying the nation must be “hoping for the best, but planning for the worst”.
An extra £3 billion funding for the NHS in England, and extra cash for the devolved nations, will allow Nightingale hospitals to remain open and for private hospital capacity to be used until the end of March.
It’s really important that we don’t have a return to work that leads to a second wave.Sadiq Khan
Ministers hope this will mean hospitals have sufficient capacity to deal with a possible spike in Covid-19 cases during the already trying winter season while allowing routine treatments and procedures to continue.
Mr Johnson also committed to a new target of reaching the capacity for 500,000 coronavirus tests per day by November in order to distinguish between flu and Covid-19 symptoms, and to rolling out the “biggest ever flu vaccination programme”.
His pledges come after a report commissioned by Sir Patrick, his top scientific adviser, warned there could be 120,000 hospital deaths in a “reasonable worst-case scenario”.
CBI deputy director general Josh Hardie welcomed the change in work guidance but warned “changing behaviour and confidence will take time”.
“Some jobs cannot be done from home. Some homes are not good places to work from. And low demand and footfall on many high streets are leaving firms struggling, driving up unemployment,” he said.
The TUC trade union federation accused the PM of “passing the buck on this big decision to employers”.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said he needed to examine “the precise details” of the PM’s plan but warned him against leaving “social care out of the priorities” in a call for funding.
The PM’s latest easing of the lockdown came as Government figures showed the growth rate of coronavirus transmission increased slightly in the last week.
Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford said his advice to workers in Wales remained to “stay at home and work from home” if they are able to do so as he accused the PM of taking a “pretty sunny view of circumstances”.