Johnson’s hopes of social distancing ending by Christmas shot down

Chief medical officer and chief scientific adviser contradict prime minister’s assertions

Boris Johnson’s top coronavirus advisers have contradicted his assertion that social-distancing restrictions could be removed in time for Christmas. The prime minister told a press conference in Downing Street that restrictions would be eased over the coming weeks, with people allowed to use public transport immediately and employers offered more discretion about bringing employees back to work.

Indoor live performances will return later in the summer and larger gatherings in stadiums will be allowed in the autumn, along with conferences and other business events.

“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 said.

But chief medical officer Chris Whitty told the Lords science committee that social distancing remained "an important part of the mix", which would have to continue "for a long period of time". Chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance said there was a significant chance that the virus would come back in force later in the year, making restrictions on movement necessary.

“If it’s the case that it goes round the world and comes back again, then clearly we remain as a population exposed to this. And therefore the measures of reducing contact to reduce spread, the sorts of social-distancing measures that we’ve talked about, and the hygiene measures that go along with that, will be necessary,” he said.

“The higher the numbers in circulation when you go into winter, the higher the likelihood you get a significant peak. And that speaks to the importance now, of getting our numbers down and getting on top of this with the measures that are in place.”

Work from home

The UK recorded 114 new deaths from coronavirus on Friday, bringing the official death toll to 45,223, and there were 687 new lab-confirmed cases.

Mr Johnson said the advice to work from home if possible would be dropped from August 1st, with employers allowed to decide how their staff can best work safely.

“That could mean, of course, continuing to work from home, which is one way of working safely and which has worked for many employers and employees. Or it could mean making workplaces safe by following Covid Secure guidelines. Whatever employers decide, they should consult closely with their employees, and only ask people to return to their place of work if it is safe. As we reopen our society and economy, it’s right that we give employers more discretion while continuing to ensure employees are kept safe,” he said.

Union leaders and business groups said the new advice was confusing and Trade Union Congress leader Frances O'Grady said the prime minister was passing the buck to employers. Adam Marshall, director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, said businesses needed "crystal-clear guidance" if they are to bring staff back to work.

“Firms will be weighing up how they want to work in future. Many have seen benefits to productivity and work-life balance over recent months, and will want to keep elements of their new normal. For many employees, returning to the workplace is contingent on schools reopening, the availability of wrap-around care and the capacity of public transport,” he said.

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is London Editor of The Irish Times