Britain Eyes Places of Worship as Lockdowns Lift
The UK government said Sunday it will reopen places of worship for individual prayer on June 15 as it reportedly looks to speed up easing measures in order to save jobs.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson's office said services and worship groups will still be banned for the time being due to concern that the new coronavirus spreads more quickly in enclosed spaces.
"People of all faiths have shown enormous patience and forbearance, unable to mark Easter, Passover, Ramadan or Vaisakhi with friends and family in the traditional way," Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick said in a statement.
"We are now able to move forwards with a limited but important return to houses of worship."
Britain's official COVID-19 death toll of 40,465 is second only to that of the United States.
But cases across Europe have fallen off sharply and Britain is now cautiously proceeding with partial school reopenings and the resumption of basic business activity that ended when the country shut down on March 23.
The UK government also intends to reopen all stores on June 15 and then push ahead with a reported plan to return to something resembling the old way of life in July.
Johnson has had to weather intense criticism for his handling of the health crisis in the past month.
Critics say Britain had ample time to take the appropriate precautions -- such as shutting down retail and closing schools -- after seeing the disease spread from China to Italy and other parts of Europe at the start of the year.
"We should have gone into lockdown earlier," the government's scientific advisory group member John Edmunds told the BBC.
"I think it would have been very hard to pull the trigger at that point but I wish we had -- I wish we had gone into lockdown earlier," the scientist said.
"I think that has cost a lot of lives unfortunately."
- Emphasis on economy -
The government is now coming under attack for starting to lift the restrictions too quickly.
The average reinfection rate in some northwestern and southwestern parts of Britain is still perilously close to the 1.0 figure above which the virus begins to spread.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock argued that the government was proceeding with abundant caution because it was wary of the dire economic effects of a second lockdown.
"The worst thing for the economy would be a second spike," he told Sky News.
Hancock dismissed reports of a raging policy clash between pro-business government ministers and more health conscious scientific advisers.
"I care deeply about getting the economy going and the best way to get the economy going is to ensure that we get the number of new infections right down," he said.
The Sunday Times said Johnson signed off on a sped-up scheduled after being told Friday that a failure to reopen the hospitality sector by the summer could cost 3.5 million jobs.
The newspaper added that Johnson wanted the government to cut social distancing guidelines from two metres to one "if scientific evidence can be found to justify the move".
"It's right that the emphasis has shifted to the economic side and a return to normal life," an unnamed cabinet minister told the paper.
"Boris wants us back to normal, or as near to it as possible before the summer," another unnamed source told The Sunday Times.