What did we learn from Boris Johnson’s long-awaited briefing to the nation on Sunday evening, seven weeks into England’s lockdown against coronavirus?
A lot, in terms of the government communications strategy. Not much, in terms of material changes to our rights.
The Prime Minister announced that, from Wednesday this week, people will be encouraged to take “more and even unlimited amounts of outdoor exercise”.
In reality, telling people they can go outside as many times as they like for exercise is a shift in tone rather than in the law.
The public health regulations brought in to police the lockdown never specified time, frequency or distance limits on outdoor exercise.
The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020 – as part of the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 – simply state that a “reasonable excuse” for a person to leave their home is “to take exercise either alone or with other members of their household”. There was already no time limit, no frequency limit and no limit on the distance you could travel from your home.
The government guidance only to go out for exercise once a day will change as of this Wednesday, but it has always been our right to exceed that advice – a police officer would be unlikely to send you home on your second jog of the day, for example.
Going to work
In his statement, Boris Johnson said people who cannot work from home “should be actively encouraged to go to work”. This, too, is mainly a shift in tone.
It has always been government policy for those who cannot work from home to go to work. The regulations mentioned above state that a “reasonable excuse” for leaving your home is “to travel for the purposes of work or to provide voluntary or charitable services, where it is not reasonably possible for that person to work, or to provide those services, from the place where they are living”.
Guidance to police forces in England on 16 April specified that it was a “reasonable excuse” to leave your home as “a non-key worker or non-essential key worker travelling to work where it is not reasonably possible to work from home”.
So the law is no different now. The difference is the specific message of encouragement from the government, which previously struck a more cautious note, and the likelihood – as my colleague Stephen Bush writes – that the industries name-checked by the PM (construction and manufacturing) will therefore soon be dropped from the furlough scheme.
Construction workers were also never told to stop working by the government in the first place – in fact, this was one of the original areas of contention between England and Scotland: construction sites were not ordered to close in England, whereas Scotland introduced guidance to stop all non-essential building work.
Sitting down, driving, playing sports
The Prime Minister said: “You can sit in the sun in your local park, you can drive to other destinations, you can even play sports, but only with members of your own household.”
Again, this isn’t as big a change to our rights as it may sound. On 16 April, the National Police Chiefs’ Council and College of Policing published new advice on enforcement of the shutdown for police forces in England – it allowed for sitting down and eating while out and about, and driving to a location to exercise or walk.
“Driving to countryside and walking (where far more time is spent walking than driving)” was deemed to pass the legal “reasonable excuse” test for being away from home.
The guidance also stated that “stopping to rest or to eat lunch while on a long walk” was a “reasonable excuse” for being out, explaining: “Exercise can come in many forms, including walks. Exercise must involve some movement, but it is acceptable for a person to stop for a break in exercise.”
In densely populated areas with more flats than gardens, people have already been sitting in parks, at a distance from other people, for weeks.
These three announcements are the only immediate changes announced by the government to come in this week. They all represent a change in tone or guidance rather than the actual law. Measures to reopen schools and the hospitality sector are still only being contemplated in the near future if certain virus-controlling standards are met, which has always been the government’s approach.
Despite the much-publicised slogan change from “stay at home” to “stay alert”, this suggests that the pro-lockdown voices among ministers and in the wider government are currently winning the argument.
It may be, however, that the government’s new advice is a prelude to changes in the support it currently offers workers, the self-employed and unemployed through the Job Retention Scheme, other income grants and Universal Credit — changes that would make very significant differences to people’s lives, whatever the slogan.