LONDON (Reuters) – Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he hoped Britain could return to normality before Christmas, setting out a phased removal of lockdown restrictions, but warned that while he was hoping for the best, the country must also prepare for the worst.
Britain is the worst-affected country in Europe by COVID-19 with a death toll from confirmed cases of more than 45,000 but has begun to lift national lockdown restrictions as case numbers and infection rates fall.
Johnson set out the latest timetable for easing on Friday, saying that employers would be given more discretion over working from home, that larger gatherings would be tested for safety and social distancing rules might be dropped in time for Christmas.
“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.
However, he stressed that the plan was conditional on success in keeping infection rates down, setting out new powers for local government to lockdown COVID-19 hotspots and extra healthcare funding.
“We’re making sure we’re ready for winter and planning for the worst. But even as we plan for the worst, I strongly believe we should also hope for the best,” he told a news conference.
The government has faced criticism over several different aspects of its response to the pandemic, including that it was too slow to impose a lockdown and failed to ramp up testing capacity quickly enough.
Johnson said that from Aug. 1 he would scrap official guidance that encouraged people to work from home and give employers the power to decide whether it was safe for workers to return.
Johnson also set out a 3 billion pound ($3.76 billion) cash boost for the state-funded health system which would be made available immediately, and permitted the use of private hospitals and temporary field hospitals would be permitted to ease the increased winter burden.
The funding announcement applies only to the English health service, with knock-on increases for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to be set out later.
The government will also increase testing capacity and flexibility, bolster its stockpiles of protective equipment and, wary of increased pressure from other seasonal illnesses, increase its annual flu vaccination programme.
Get the best of CNBC Africa sent straight to your inbox with breaking business news, insights and updates from experts across the continent. Sign up here.