The British government has replaced its “stay at home” coronavirus slogan with a new “stay alert” message, a move that has met with widespread criticism ahead of a speech Sunday in which Prime Minister Boris Johnson will lay out the stages for lifting the country’s lockdown.
Britain’s lockdown, which began March 23, has clearly reduced the transmission of the virus but the country’s daily death toll remains uncomfortably high, and as a result most restrictions are expected to remain.
After a week of mixed messages that started with Johnson indicating there will be changes to the lockdown beginning Monday, the government has sought to douse speculation that they will amount to much. That’s because the U.K., which has recorded the most coronavirus-related deaths in Europe at 31,662, is still seeing a relatively high number of infections.
Johnson is expected to announce modest changes in his pre-recorded televised address, including quarantining anyone flying into the country for 14 days except those from Ireland, amid rising evidence that Britons are increasingly flouting the “stay at home” message. British police warned Saturday that they are “fighting a losing battle” on this front.
Ahead of his speech, Johnson fleshed out the meaning of the new “stay alert” slogan as telling the public to “stay at home as much as possible,” to keep two meters (over 6 feet) apart when going out and to limit contacts with other people.
Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick said a broader message was needed as the government tries to restart the economy.
“We should be staying home as much as possible but when we do go to work and go about our business we need to remain vigilant, we need to stay alert,” he told Sky News.
The leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, Nicola Sturgeon, Mark Drakeford and Arlene Foster, said they would retain the “stay at home” message. Up until now, the four nations of the U.K. have moved in lockstep on virus regulations.
Jonathan Ashworth, health spokesman for the opposition Labour Party, said there is “no room for nuance on this,” adding that Johnson will have to provide “absolute clarity” in his address.
Professor Til Wykes of the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King’s College London said people need “clear, concise and accurate” messages on what to do during the pandemic.
“This one is concise only,” she said. “It will just be confusing, be open to misinterpretation and likely to increase risky behaviour.”
Jenrick also said Johnson will detail a new virus alert system and that the country was currently at four on a scale that goes up to five.
“Our aspiration is to bring that down as swiftly as we can to three,” he said. “And at each stage, at each of those milestones, we will be in a position to open up and restart more aspects of the economy and of our lives.”
Other modest changes to the lockdown are expected, including allowing people to exercise more than once a day and garden centers to reopen. New advice on face coverings and increased fines for those breaching lockdown rules are also anticipated.
The worry is that a more dramatic easing of the lockdown will lead to a second spike in infections and deaths — something that health experts predict will occur as nations ease lockdowns.
Johnson’s Conservative government has also faced wide criticism for being too slow to react to the pandemic and for not supplying medical workers with enough protective gear.
Johnson, more than other world leaders, has seen the virus up close. He returned to work only two weeks ago following a hospitalization for COVID-19 that nearly cost the 55-year-old his life.
Karen Dee, the chief executive of the Airport Operators Association, said she has not received any details about any proposed quarantine plan but warned that it would have a “devastating impact” on the U.K.’s aviation industry as well as the wider economy.