UK PM hopes for return to normality by Christmas

·3-min read

Britain could return to normality from the coronavirus outbreak by Christmas, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Friday, despite fears of a second wave of cases over winter. Johnson sketched out a timetable for easing the remaining lockdown measures in England, including lifting homeworking guidance and reopening sports stadiums and live theatre. "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. Current government guidance is for employees to work from home where they can. But under the latest proposals, Johnson said employers can have "more discretion" and discuss with workers whether it is safe to return to the office from August 1. Asked if that was at odds with his own government's advice, Johnson also said people could still continue to work from home. From the same date, most remaining leisure venues, including skating rinks and casinos could also reopen, subject to social distancing regulations. Wedding receptions with up to 30 guests would also be allowed. Johnson also said the state-run National Health Service (NHS) would receive an extra £3 billion ($3.8 billion, 3.3 million euros) to prepare for a possible winter spike in cases. "Even as we plan for the worst, I strongly believe we should also hope for the best," he added. - Winter worries - Fears of a second wave of infections were raised this week when scientists said nearly 120,000 people could die in hospitals alone from September to June next year. The warning was put forward as a "reasonable worst-case scenario" if no counter-measures were put in place. Despite Johnson's desire for a return to normality, his chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, said on Friday that social distancing needed to continue "for a long period of time". The government's chief scientific advisor, Patrick Vallance, agreed, judging the risk of a second wave of infection to be "high". "There's a signficant chance it comes back in force," he told a parliamentary select committee after Johnson's announcement. "Everyone I've spoken to thinks it's highly likely that this disease will continue to circulate and come back in waves and may well be seasonal." Britain has seen more than 45,000 deaths in the outbreak -- the worst in Europe -- leading to criticism about the government approach to tackle the crisis. On Friday, the health ministry ordered an urgent review into how death tolls are counted, after a study claimed an overestimation because figures included people who died long after recovering from the virus. - Sports pilots - Johnson earlier acknowledged the risks of reopening, particularly for winter when the NHS is often under greater strain because of seasonal flu outbreaks. But he said councils across England would be given new powers to impose local restrictions quickly in the case of outbreaks, instead of a renewed nationwide lockdown. Leicester, a city in central England, has been under local lockdown for the last two weeks because of a spike in cases. Johnson gave sports fans something to cheer about by announcing the intention to allow crowds to return to stadiums, subject to successful test events, from October. Mass gatherings have been banned since March, and the showpiece English Premier League has been played behind closed doors, without fans, since it resumed. Among the pilot events will be the World Snooker Championship, the Glorious Goodwood horseracing festival and two county cricket friendly matches later this month.

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