In lockdown easing, UK’s Johnson says groups of 6 can meet

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Dominic Cummings, top aide to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, leaves his north London home as the row over his trip to Durham during lockdown continues Thursday May 28, 2020. The British government faced accusations of hypocrisy after the revelation that Cummings traveled more than 250 miles (400 kms) to his parents’ house during a nationwide lockdown while he was showing coronavirus symptoms. (Victoria Jones/PA via AP)

LONDON (AP) — Up to six people from different households will be allowed to meet outdoors next week as part of another modest easing of the coronavirus lockdown in England, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Thursday.

Johnson, who has faced days of scorn for keeping his top aide Dominic Cummings in post following his controversial travels during the lockdown, said families and friends in groups of up to six can meet from Monday in outdoor spaces, including private gardens.

Johnson said at a news conference that this was potentially a “long-awaited and joyful moment” for parents and grandparents but stressed that people from different households must remain 2 meters (6.5 feet) apart and should only access homes to get to the garden. Barbecues are allowed as part of the easing but camping in gardens is not. The use of toilets is permitted as long as hands are washed thoroughly and surfaces are wiped down.

The prime minister also confirmed that schools will start reopening from Monday, initially for some younger students. Outdoor-based shops, such as car showrooms, can also reopen. Earlier, England’s Premier League also said the soccer season is to recommence on June 17.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are also easing lockdowns, in slightly different ways.

Johnson said the “limited and cautious” changes to the lockdown, in place since March 23, were possible because five government-imposed tests have been met. These include sustained falls in virus infections and daily deaths.

Though the number of coronavirus-related deaths has fallen since the peak in early April, the U.K. still recorded another 377 in all settings including hospitals and care homes, taking the total to 37,837 — the second-highest in the world behind the United States.

“This is not a time to say ‘Everything’s OK, we’re relaxing measures, everything’s going to be rosy’,” said the government’s chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance. “We are at a fragile state.”

Vallance noted that the U.K. was recording a “significant” 54,000 new cases a week.

Johnson continued to brush aside questions about Cummings, and said the issue was now closed after police said they will not take any action on the matter.

Johnson has been urged to sack Cummings from across the political spectrum, including from within his own Conservative Party, after his adviser drove 250 miles (400 km) to his parents’ house in Durham, northeast England, at the end of March while the country was under a “stay-at-home” order. Cummings made a later journey to a scenic town 30 miles (50 km) away.

Following an investigation, Durham Constabulary said the drive to Durham did not breach the rules but the second trip, to Barnard Castle, might have been “a minor breach” of lockdown rules “that would have warranted police intervention.” But the force said “there is no intention to take retrospective action” because no one else has been fined retrospectively. More than 14,000 people in Britain have been fined for travel violations during the lockdown.

Keir Starmer, leader of the main opposition Labour Party, said the police’s assessment was “inconsistent” with what Johnson has said previously.

“But frankly, he’s too weak to do anything about it,” he said. “I don’t think he’s going to do anything because he cannot, it seems, continue without his adviser.”

Cummings has defended his actions, saying he traveled to ensure that his 4-year-old son could be looked after if he and his wife, who both had coronavirus symptoms, became sick. He says he drove to Barnard Castle to test whether his eyesight, which had been affected by illness, was good enough for the trip back to London.

Johnson refused to let his chief medical and scientific advisers answer questions about Cummings at the government’s daily news conference, saying it was a “political” matter, a decision that prompted a further rebuke from Starmer.

“We want transparency here, we want to know what their view is,” he said.

Johnson is also facing pressure to scrap a government immigration-related policy after he appeared to be caught unaware of the fact that many migrants to the U.K. cannot access financial support during the pandemic through a “no recourse to public funds” clause in temporary visas.

Johnson said Wednesday he would “see what we can do to help” people facing problems, stoking speculation that his government may announce another change in policy. In one of two changes last week, the government said overseas health and social care staff would be exempt from a surcharge to use the National Health Service.

On Thursday evening, people across the U.K. stood on balconies, doorsteps and sidewalks to applaud care workers on the front lines of the pandemic, for the 10th and possibly final time. Annemarie Plas, 36, founded the ritual but says that “to have the most impact I think it is good to stop it at its peak.”

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