Coronavirus: Some return to work as lockdown eases slightly in England

2 weeks ago
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Some people in England who cannot work from home are returning to their workplaces today, as the government begins easing some lockdown measures.

The government urged people to avoid public transport if possible.

But some commuters said trains and buses were still too busy to observe social distancing rules.

Meanwhile, new guidance issued by the College of Policing said officers had “no powers to enforce two-metre distancing” in England.

Under the new rules in England, people can now spend more time outside and move house.

Garden centres can reopen and sports that are physically distanced – such as golf – are now permitted.

Two people from different households can meet in outdoor settings, such as parks, as long as they stay more than 2m apart.

However, government guidance on maintaining a 2m distance, avoiding public transport and wearing face coverings in enclosed spaces is “not enforceable” by officers in England, according to the fresh guidelines from the College of Policing.

It follows a speech by Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Sunday in which he unveiled a “conditional plan” aimed at reopening society, much of which has been in lockdown for seven weeks.

This has led to a divergence in lockdown rules between the UK government and the devolved administrations, with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland keeping stricter measures in place and retaining the message to stay at home.

It comes as figures from the Office for National Statistics showed the UK economy shrank at the fastest pace since the financial crisis in the first quarter of 2020.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak told the BBC it was “very likely” the UK would face a “significant recession” as a result of the pandemic.

In England, employers have been issued with guidelines on keeping workplaces as safe as possible, including the use of staggered shifts and frequent cleaning.

And those who flout the rules could face criminal proceedings, the Health and Safety Executive watchdog has warned.

Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, said the new guidelines for employers were “a step in the right direction” but “the real test will be delivery”.

She said employers should publish a risk assessment and if workers had any concerns they could contact the Health and Safety Executive hotline.

“It’s really important to remember that workers do have that right in law not to work if it would put them in imminent danger,” she told BBC Breakfast.

Asked how it was possible for people to maintain social distancing on packed buses and Tubes as more people returned to work, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said the government was urging people to cycle and walk where possible.

“The absolute key here is for anybody who can to make alternative arrangements for travel,” he told BBC Breakfast.

He added that even if the public transport network was running at full capacity, only one in 10 people would be able to travel while keeping to social distancing rules.

Transport for London said the number of passengers using the Tube from the start of service to 06:00 BST was up by 8.7% compared with the same period last week.

BBC News correspondent Charlotte Rose said the normally busy transport hub at Canning Town in east London was “fairly quiet” early on Wednesday morning but some buses were arriving with every seat taken, making it impossible to observe social distancing guidelines.

One commuter told the BBC it was “next to impossible” to social distance on the London Underground and most people were not wearing masks.

In Blackpool, a hospital worker said the downstairs of her bus was “packed” during her morning commute.

In other developments, estate agents can now reopen, viewings can take place and removal firms and conveyancers can re-start operations, so long as social-distancing and workplace-safety rules are followed.

Anyone who has already bought a new home will now be able to visit it to prepare for moving in.

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The updated lockdown regulations, which were presented to Parliament on Tuesday, also allow people to leave their homes to collect goods ordered from businesses or to travel to waste or recycling centres.

Some outdoor sports can get under way again, with golf clubs and tennis courts expected to reopen to the public. Playgrounds, however, will stay shut.

Restrictions have also been lifted on how far people can travel to get to the countryside, national parks and beaches in England.

However, people have been warned to respect local communities, keep their distance from others and avoid hotspots or busy areas.

The government reiterated that staying overnight at a holiday or second home was not allowed.

Those who break the rules will now face fines starting at £100 in England, and this will double on each further repeat offence up to £3,200.

National Police Chiefs’ Council chairman Martin Hewitt said officers would “continue to use common sense and discretion” in policing the new rules.

He told BBC Breakfast police would be encouraging people to go home if they were not out for a “legitimate reason” and enforcement and fines would be used “only as a last resort”.

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