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Government promises reopening details 'shortly'

The government has said it will update retailers “shortly” on its phased approach to provisionally reopening stores in June, and announced that economic support packages will need to be “wound down” as people are “eased back to work”. 

Following prime minister Boris Johnson’s announcement last night, the government has published a document for lifting restrictions in three steps, including dates “that should help people to plan”. 

This includes the provisional 1 June date for non-essential retailers to begin a phased reopening.

The government said it will issue further guidance “shortly” on the approach that will be taken to phasing, including which businesses will be covered in each phase and the timeframes involved. Currently, the guidelines do not break down the timings for shopping centres, retail parks and independent stores. 

The roadmap to lift restrictions

Our Plan to Rebuild: The UK Government’s Covid-19 Recovery Strategy outlines a three-step timetable that depends on successfully  controlling the spread of the virus.

The government said that if evidence shows insufficient progress in containing infection, then the lifting of restrictions may have to be delayed.

“Step one” in the timetable outlines changes to policy that will apply from 13 May in England. It includes details mentioned in prime minister Boris Johnson’s televised address last night. For instance, workers, who cannot work at home in sectors such as manufacturing are now being “actively encouraged” to go return to work, avoiding public transport where possible.

Workers are also advised to use face coverings and told that homemade cloth face-coverings can help reduce the risk of transmission where social distancing cannot be maintained.

Step two” would be the opening of non-essential retail in phases from 1 June.

It also includes a staged return for early years educational settings and schools, permitting cultural and sporting events to take place behind closed-doors, and reopening more local public transport in urban areas, subject to strict measures.

“Step three is expected to take place when “the assessment of risk warrants further adjustments to the remaining measures”.

The government’s current planning assumption is that this step will be no earlier than 4 July, subject to the five tests and further detailed scientific advice provided closer to the time.

This step includes “at least some of”, the remaining businesses and premises that have been required to close, including personal care (such as hairdressers and beauty salons) hospitality (such as food service providers, pubs and accommodation), public places (such as places of worship) and leisure facilities (such as cinemas).

Winding-down of government support

With the ease of restrictions will also come the “wind-down” of the economic support measures introduced by the government, today’s document announced. 

It said the economic measures introduced to help citizens and businesses through the crisis “are extraordinarily costly and cannot be sustained for a prolonged period of time”. 

The estimated cost of the government’s response to Covid-19 could rise above £100bn in 2020/21. It said 800,000 employers had applied to the coronavirus Job Retention Scheme – or furlough programme – to help pay the wages of 6.3 million jobs, as of midnight on 3 May.

No further detail was given on what the wind-down of these measures would look like, other than they would begin as people are ”eased back to work”. 

The document emphasised that the economy was a government priority – second only to the health of the nation.

It said: ”The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) and the Bank of England have both been clear that if the government had not taken the actions they had, the situation would be much worse. But despite this, the impact on people’s jobs and livelihoods has been severe: economic activity has been brought to a stop across large swathes of the UK economy.

“The government is supporting millions of families and businesses, but cannot protect every job and every business. The longer the virus affects the economy, the greater the risks of long-term scarring and permanently lower economic activity, with business failures, persistently higher unemployment and lower earnings.

“Ultimately, a strong economy is the best way to protect people’s jobs and ensure that the government can fund the country’s vital public services including the healthcare response.”

A plan for PPE

The government has also created a new “industrial strategy” for personal protective equipment (PPE) to ensure all NHS staff are protected. 

It will expand its supply of PPE from overseas to “diversify the UK’s sources of supply and strengthen the UK’s supply chains for the long term”. However, it is not clear from which countries the additional PPE will be sourced.

It will also improve the UK’s domestic manufacturing capability and the government said it is currently in contact with more than 200 new potential manufacturers.

Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon announced last week that Scotland’s coronavirus lockdown would be extended, warning that a lifting of restrictions would be “very, very risky”.

The Welsh government also announced a three-week extension to its coronavirus lockdown on Friday. However, it relaxed the rules to allow exercise more than once a day and garden centres to reopen if they can comply with social distancing.

The devolved government in Northern Ireland is considering a plan for a phased exit to the lockdown today, and reportedly plans could be published tomorrow if agreed.

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