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Confusion sown by UK ministers over rules for England's lockdown

New rules are coming into effect in England on Thursday in an effort to control the spread of Covid-19.

Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick
Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick

MINISTERS IN THE British cabinet have added to confusion about the rules that will apply when England’s second national lockdown begins on Thursday.

Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick suggested that an entire household could meet up with a friend, before then contradicting himself, while Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove apologised after incorrectly indicating that people could play a round of golf or game of tennis with a friend.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government is also under pressure from Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to clarify whether the furlough scheme could be extended further if Scotland decides to follow England into a lockdown.

Johnson has been criticised over his handling of the second lockdown, which was announced at a hastily-arranged press conference on Saturday after some of the details leaked, and it appeared today that not all ministers are fully on top of the new arrangements.

The official guidance states that people in England can exercise or visit outdoor public places either with their household or one person from another household – although children under school-age with a parent will not count towards the limit on two people meeting outside.

On BBC Breakfast, Robert Jenrick suggested households could go for a walk with one other person, and was questioned on this.

Presenter Louise Minchin said: “I think I heard you say that outside you can be one household, plus one other person, is that what you meant and is that right?”

Jenrick replied: “Yes, that’s right.”

Minchin said: “So a family could go for a walk, with, for example, a friend?”

The Housing Secretary answered: “Yes.”

However, when Minchin pressed him, asking whether this applied to four people and one person, Jenrick said: “Yes, so you can go out in your own household, or with one other person.”

Michael Gove, who wrongly suggesting that people would be able to play singles tennis or golf in pairs during the impending lockdown, later admitted his mistake. 

During an online question and answer session with his constituents on Monday, the MP for Surrey Heath suggested it would be possible to play singles tennis.

The Cabinet Office minister also said “we are looking at” allowing people to play golf with one other person, despite Johnson so far resisting calls for golf courses to remain open.

This morning, Gove apologised for the comments on Twitter, including a link to the government guidance.

“My apologies, I got this wrong,” he said. “Outdoor leisure facilities including tennis courts and golf courses will be closed from Thursday.”

England’s lockdown is due to end on 2 December, with the government hoping to reintroduce a localised tiered system of restrictions.

Johnson hopes that a mass testing campaign, using equipment which can deliver a result in a matter of minutes, could be a route out of the coronavirus crisis.

A pilot scheme in Liverpool will see half a million people offered regular testing from Friday, with 2,000 military personnel helping with the logistics.

Johnson said that, depending on the success of rapid turnaround tests in the pilot, the aim is to distribute millions of them between now and Christmas to “empower local communities to use them to drive down transmission in their areas”.

The Department of Health said further detail would be released by Liverpool City Council this week on how residents and workers will be able to access the tests, and did not give any more information on how regular the testing would be.

Mayor of Liverpool Joe Anderson said local leaders had made it clear to the Government that they are “keen that we should be considered for any new strategies to tackle the worrying rise in Covid-19”.

The aim is to use new rapid turnaround tests – alongside existing swab tests, and Lamp (loop-mediated isothermal amplification) technology for NHS staff – to find asymptomatic cases in order to help prevent and reduce transmission in the community.

Johnson said: “These tests will help identify the many thousands of people in the city who don’t have symptoms but can still infect others without knowing.

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“Dependent on their success in Liverpool, we will aim to distribute millions of these new rapid tests between now and Christmas and empower local communities to use them to drive down transmission in their areas.

“It is early days, but this kind of mass testing has the potential to be a powerful new weapon in our fight against Covid-19.”

Johnson was chairing a meeting of his Cabinet on Tuesday ahead of MPs voting on the lockdown measures on Wednesday.

Chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance and chief medical officer for England Professor Chris Whitty are due to face questions from MPs this afternoon when they appear before the Science and Technology Committee.

The experts will be challenged about the case for lockdown, but the latest statistics showed a rising death toll.

A total of 978 deaths registered in England and Wales in the week ending October 23 mentioned Covid-19 on the death certificate, according to the Office for National Statistics, the highest since 12 June and a 46% increase on last week’s figure.

The government has extended the furlough scheme until December to coincide with England’s lockdown.

Johnson told Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross on Monday that “if other parts of the UK decide to go into measures which require the furlough scheme then of course it’s available to them, that has to be right and that applies not just now but of course in the future as well”.

But Jenrick told Sky News on Tuesday that any extension beyond December is “a decision the Chancellor will have to make at the time”.

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said “we need clarity on this urgently today”, adding that “woolly words don’t pay people’s wages”.

In Wales, Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford said: “We take the PM at his word and would expect him to instruct any Chancellor in a Government led by him to do the same.” 

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