by Patrick Worrall and Georgina Lee
The UK government has set out new rules for England on the coronavirus lockdown in a lengthy document following Boris Johnson’s TV address last night. But key questions remain unanswered.
Here’s what we learned today about going outdoors, meeting family, schools reopening, face coverings and social distancing.
The new guidelines say that from Wednesday, people can exercise outdoors as many times as they like in a given day, and can drive for as long as they like to get to an open space. That is, as long as people in England don’t travel into Wales or Scotland, where stricter rules remain in place.
Previous guidance was that people should not go out for exercise more than once a day – although this was always a guideline in England, and not written into the law.
There was confusion until now about whether people were allowed to drive to beauty spots. Several police forces reportedly cracked down on motorists making “unnecessary” trips to outdoor spaces, but senior officers and the Crown Prosecution Service clarified last month that driving somewhere for exercise was not illegal.
There was also no general provision to allow people to spend time outdoors that wasn’t for the “essential” purposes spelled out by the government (exercising, buying food, helping a vulnerable person, or meeting a medical need).
From Wednesday, this will change and people will be allowed to sunbathe or picnic in outdoor spaces – though they’ll still need to stay two metres from other households.
Can you meet your family?
This question caused a lot of confusion this morning, with Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab wrongly telling BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that people could meet both their parents, as long as they maintained social distance.
The new guidance states that when you’re outside, you should not meet up “with any more than one person from outside your household”.
This has been seized upon today by commentators eager to know if it leaves open the possibility of meeting up with relatives one at a time – albeit at a safe distance.
In fact, the “new advice” is very similar to the previous UK government guideline on exercise, which stated: “you must not gather in groups of more than two people in public spaces like parks”. The Department of Health told FactCheck that the “previous guidance was that you should not meet with people you don’t live with”.
In another radio interview this morning, Dominic Raab was asked whether people could drive to visit their parents, if they maintained social distance, and he advised against it.
We’ve asked Number 10 to clarify whether someone could meet up with one parent in the morning and another in the afternoon under the new rules. We’ll update this article if we hear from them.
The government says it understands how hard it is to keep families separated and “has asked [the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies] SAGE to examine whether, when and how it can safely change the regulations to allow people to expand their household group to include one other household in the same exclusive group”.
In short: if you’re in England, you will be allowed to meet up with one other person from outside your household in a park or open space from Wednesday, provided you stay two metres apart. What is not yet clear is whether you could meet different people one at a time in separate meetings throughout the day.
When will schools reopen?
The government says “the rate of infection remains too high to allow the reopening of schools for all pupils yet”.
“Step one” of their strategy, which begins on Wednesday, will see local authorities encouraging vulnerable children and children of key workers to come to class. They are already eligible to go in to school – now the government wants to “urge more children who would benefit from attending in person to do so”.
Schools are now being told to prepare for increased attendance from 1 June. That’s when the government says it “expects children to be able to return to early years settings, and for Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 to be back in school”.
As for older children, “secondary schools and further education colleges should also prepare to begin some face to face contact with Year 10 and 12 pupils who have key exams next year”.
The government says its “ambition is for all primary school children to return to school before the summer for a month if feasible” – though it stresses that, like all school plans, this depends on the risk posed by the virus.
The science on whether people should cover their faces in public is so complex that many experts completely disagree on whether the public health benefits outweigh the disadvantages.
The UK government had long resisted calls to follow guidance issued in many other countries for people to cover up when out and about. Today that changed.
The new guidance for England says: “If you can, wear a face covering in an enclosed space where social distancing isn’t possible and where you will come into contact with people you do not normally meet. This is most relevant for short periods indoors in crowded areas, for example on public transport or in some shops.”
This is based on evidence that wearing a covering does not protect the wearer, but may protect others if you are infected but asymptomatic.
The advice is clear that the general public should wear face coverings made from cloths, not surgical masks, which are needed by healthcare professionals and other high-risk workers.
This is similar to guidance already issued in Scotland.
The two-metre rule
The government still recommends that people stay two metres apart when practicing social distancing. But the document issued today admits that the two-metre gap is more of a rule of thumb than hard science.
The new guidance says: “You are very unlikely to be infected if you walk past another person in the street. Public Health England recommends trying to keep 2m away from people as a precaution.
“However, this is not a rule and the science is complex. The key thing is to not be too close to people for more than a short amount of time, as much as you can.”
The World Health Organisation recommends people maintain a distance of at least one metre.