LONDON – The sound of crisply struck golf balls could be heard in England for the first time in nearly two months as courses reopened Wednesday, part of a modest easing of coronavirus lockdown restrictions.
But delight at the resumption of some recreation was mixed with anxiety among commuters and transit staff as people began to return to workplaces.
After seven weeks of lockdown, people in England were allowed to exercise more than once a day and with one person from outside their household, provided they remained 2 meters (around 6.5 feet) apart. Other sporting activities, such as tennis, fishing, boating and lake swimming, also resumed.
David Baillie, the pro at Dulwich & Sydenham Hill Golf Club in southeast London, said 170 members booked tee-off times to play in pairs on Wednesday and that all slots are taken through Tuesday.
“It’s gone swimmingly well,” he said.
Stores selling gardening supplies reported busy trade as they reopened, and potential home buyers were told they could once again visit properties. And, importantly in the context of getting the ailing British economy back on its feet, people who can’t work from home, such as those in construction and manufacturing, were being encouraged by the government to return to work if they can do so safely.
Some construction sites have resumed work, and automaker Ford announced plans to restart production at two factories in the U.K.
The easing of restrictions applies only in England. The semi-autonomous governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are going more slowly and sticking with the “Stay Home” message, partly because the epidemic is at different stages in different parts of the country,
Johnson justified the modest easing on the grounds that Britain has passed the peak of the outbreak, with deaths and new infections in decline. The U.K. has officially recorded the most coronavirus-related deaths in Europe, more than 33,000, a toll second only to the United States.
The government is trying to defeat the outbreak while gradually restarting an economy that shrank by 2% in the first quarter of the year, with output falling 5.8% in March, the month everyday life began to shut down. Treasury chief Rishi Sunak said the U.K. was headed for a “significant recession.
But there was confusion about the “back to work” guidance, first announced by U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Sunday. Critics of Johnson’s Conservative government say the changes, spelled out in a 50-page document, are confusing and potentially dangerous.
Johnson denied that there had been mixed messaging and told lawmakers that “the common sense of the British people is shining through.”
One of the main concerns centers on how people can travel to work while keeping to social distancing requirements, especially in London, where most commuters use public transit.
Transport for London said that in the morning hours up to 10 a.m., the number of passengers on the capital’s subway system was around 7.3% higher than on the same day last week.
Carl Moss, 39, traveling to his job as a gardener at St. Thomas’ Hospital in central London, said it’s been “busier today” and that he’d seen “more office, finance-type people” as well as manual workers.
The union that represents train drivers voiced concerns about overcrowding following images on social media showing passengers crowded together on Tube trains and buses.
At London’s Victoria train and subway station, worker Linda Freitas said she felt “anxious and a bit scared” about the prospect of more commuters. A ticket office worker at the station died with COVID-19 last month after being spat at by a man claiming to have the coronavirus.
“If it’s done gradually let’s see, but if it’s too many people then it will be a bit of a problem,” Freitas said.
Meanwhile, Johnson is under fire for his government’s handling of an outbreak that has infected more than 200,000 Britons – including the prime minister, who spent three nights in intensive care last month.
On Wednesday, the government announced $735 million in funding to stop coronavirus infections in nursing homes. But opponents said the money was too late to save thousands of vulnerable residents.
More than 8,000 people with the coronavirus died in nursing homes up to the start of May, according to Britain’s Office for National Statistics, and the full figure is likely substantially higher.
Keir Starmer, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, accused the government of being lax for releasing people from hospitals into nursing homes earlier in the outbreak without testing them for the coronavirus.
Johnson called the situation in care homes “a tragedy” but said the number of infections and deaths was now falling.
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