Keir Starmer accused the prime minister of failing to give the public “clear directions” on the way through the coronavirus crisis on Monday, as the government struggled to answer a barrage of questions about its new advice to “stay alert”.
Boris Johnson was challenged by the Labour leader, MPs and members of the public over ambiguities and contradictions in the government’s new guidelines.
Starmer has been broadly supportive of the government’s approach to dealing with the crisis – but he has stepped up his criticism in recent days, amid what Labour regards as mixed messages about the next steps.
“What we needed from the prime minister last night was clarity and reassurance,” he said. “The prime minister said he was setting out a roadmap, but if we’re to complete the journey safely a roadmap needs clear directions.”
Johnson delivered his broadcast to the nation on Sunday night, urging the public to “stay alert” – but full details of the planned changes were not published until Monday afternoon.
After a day of confusion over exactly what the message meant, with ministers and MPs giving apparently contradictory answers on the airwaves when defending the policy, the prime minister conceded that the message had become more complex than the “stay home, save lives” slogan of the past six weeks.
He said that the government was now relying on people to use their commonsense and doubled down on the “stay alert” message by saying it was similar to one being used by the French president, Emmanuel Macron: “Sauvez des vies, restez prudents” (save lives, be careful).
Pooja, one of the members of the public who were given the chance to put questions to the prime minister at Monday’s press conference, asked him why he had “been so vague” about who should be going back to work.
Another, a primary school teacher called Kate, asked why she could mix with the children she is teaching but not with members of her family.
Dominic Raab had earlier suggested it would now be acceptable for someone to meet both their parents, in a park. But Johnson contradicted that, saying: “You have to do it one-on-one, outdoors”.
Starmer said the most important question the government had failed to answer clearly was: “When we could see our loved ones again?”
And in the House of Commons, he said: “There’s not consensus either on messaging now or on policy between the UK government and those in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, not something I know he [Johnson] wanted to see but now we’re in that position, [which] raises serious concerns, with a real danger of divergence.
“What the country needs at this time is clarity and reassurance and at the moment both are in pretty short supply.”
Former Tory cabinet minister David Davis, who has criticised the lockdown, said that in lifting it, “the government should be thinking just as much about families as about economics”.
In other developments on Monday:
• The government announced it would advise the public to wear face-coverings, in places where they cannot distance themselves from others.
• Johnson said lockdown could be swiftly reimposed in a particular local area if a new outbreak is detected – a process he compared to “whack-a-mole”.
• Unions welcomed changes to the safety-at-work guidance for reopening workplaces, saying they were “moving in the right direction”.
• Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance sidestepped the question of whether they signed off the “stay alert” slogan, saying they weren’t communications experts.
In the 60-page “Plan to Rebuild”, the government set out details of what it called the “second phase” of its approach to dealing with the virus. Described as an “indicative roadmap”, it suggests dates when more of the economy may reopen – but stresses they are dependent on data.
Vallance said he and his colleagues had “strongly supported the conditionality” of the government’s approach, and each step would have to be science-based, not “date-based”.
More outdoor activities will be allowed, and more people who cannot work from home will be “actively encouraged” to return to their workplaces.
But at the same time, the government said “smarter controls” would be imposed, in order to help more areas of the economy reopen when possible.
These include the use of face coverings, encouraging the public to wash their clothes regularly, and changes in work-practices including working from home where possible, cutting down on face-to-face contact and improving ventilation.
The measures are expected to become a “new normal” until an effective vaccine or treatment for the virus can be found.
Addressing MPs about the government’s plans, Johnson insisted the UK should continue to confront the crisis as one, despite suggestions from the Welsh and Scottish governments that he has recklessly abandoned the “Stay Home” message too soon.
“Different parts of the UK may need to stay in full lockdown longer, but any divergence should be only short term because, as prime minister of the UK, I am in no doubt that we must defeat this threat and face the challenge of recovery together,” he said.
There was also confusion about when the latest changes would come into effect. Johnson had appeared to suggest on Sunday that they were immediate.
But Raab, who was sent out to explain the government’s approach on Monday as workers in London crowded on to the tube, said they would not start until Wednesday, once employers had received fresh advice on how to work safely.
Nine sets of new “Covid-secure” workplace guidance were published on Monday evening, after days of consultations with unions and business groups.
The TUC had rejected an earlier draft of the advice, saying it was too loosely worded. But its general secretary, Frances O’Grady, said they were “a step in the right direction”.
“All employers must now carry out and publish risk assessments in consultation with unions and their workforces. After the confusion of the last few days working people will only feel confident if government and employers act now to make safer working a reality in every workplace,” she said.
Johnson later insisted that no one should be returning to an unsafe workplace, and there would be “spot inspections” to ensure compliance by employers.
“In saying that people who can’t work from home should now go to work we are absolutely categorical their workplace, your workplace must be safe, must be Covid-secure,” he said. “Employers will not be allowed to get away with forcing people to work in conditions that are not Covid-secure.”