LONDON — The British government performed an about-face on masks Monday, telling people to cover their mouth and nose in shops, buses and subway trains. The change came as part of what Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the ”first careful measures” to lift a nationwide lockdown imposed seven weeks ago to slow the spread of the new coronavirus.
A 50-page government document outlining cautious steps to ease restrictions said “people should aim to wear a face-covering in enclosed spaces where social distancing is not always possible and they come into contact with others that they do not normally meet, for example on public transport or in some shops.”
That is a recommendation rather than a rule, and people won’t be penalized if they don’t wear a mask.
The government outlined a three-stage approach to ending lockdown, beginning Wednesday with a relaxing of limits on outdoor activity. People in England may take unlimited amounts of exercise, rather than just one trip out a day, and may sit and sunbathe outdoors. Driving to a park or beach will be permitted, and golf courses and tennis courts can reopen.
If there is no new spike in infections, that will be followed in June by a return to class for some young school pupils, the reopening of nonessential shops and the return of televised sports, played behind closed doors. A third stage, penciled in for July at the soonest, would see the gradual reopening of restaurants, cafes, pubs, hairdressers and other businesses.
Johnson told lawmakers that “if the alert level begins to rise we will have no hesitation in putting on the brakes.”
While many people welcomed the prospect of an end to lockdown, police organizations warned that the new rules were fuzzy and made enforcement harder.
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There was confusion about the measures, which were announced by Johnson in a televised speech almost 24 hours before the details were published.
In a televised statement Sunday, Johnson extended most of the draconian restrictions on daily life imposed March 23, including the closure of schools, restaurants and most shops.
Britain’s official coronavirus death toll stood Monday at 32,065, the highest in Europe and the second-highest in the world after the United States. While the number of new deaths and infections is falling, Johnson said it would be “madness” to loosen restrictions so much that there is a new surge in cases.
But he made a dramatic shift in tone on the economy. Since March 23, workers have been told to stay at home. Now Johnson said “anyone who can’t work from home, for instance those in construction or manufacturing, should be actively encouraged to go to work.”