Work and exercise restrictions ease in England

London (AFP) –


People living in England got more freedom on Wednesday to leave their homes, including to go to work, the first stage of an easing of the seven-week coronavirus lockdown.

The partial lifting of restrictions comes despite concern that Britain has the second-highest death toll from the virus in the world -- and confusion about the new rules.

More than 36,000 people have died and there are still high mortality rates in care homes, despite an overall downward trend in cases, deaths and hospital admissions.

Under the new guidelines, which do not apply in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has urged millions unable to work from home to return to their jobs.

Transport Minister Grant Shapps said those returning to the workplace to "cycle or walk" if possible.

"We are asking people to be very sensible and not flood back to public transport," he told Sky News.

"Even with all the trains and buses back to running when they are, there will not be enough space."

But in London, traffic was heavier and Transport for London said passenger numbers on the underground were up 8.7 percent up on the same time last week.

At Canning Town train station in east London, people -- some with face coverings but many without -- were seen queueing during rush hour.

Elsewhere, full double decker buses were seen plying the streets.

- 'Mixed messages' -

The public is also able to drive to the countryside, play tennis or golf, see one friend in a public space or visit a garden centre.

But they must at all times remain two metres (six feet) away from other people, risking a £100 ($123, 113-euro) fine if they break the rules.

At Bigbury Golf Glub, on the Devon coast in southwest England, general manager Jason Pheasant said the first of its 145 golfers scheduled to play teed off at 7:02 am (0602 GMT).

"We have a full tee sheet," he said. "I feel like a headteacher with a load of school kids coming back. Everyone is so excited."

The government -- already on the back foot about the extent of testing and providing protective equipment -- has come under fire for sending "mixed messages" about opening up while the daily death toll still hovers around 500.

Critics point out that while people are allowed to welcome cleaners and nannies into their homes, family members and loved ones are still banned.

At the same time, house moves and viewings are allowed for the first time since the country shut down on March 23, with more than 450,000 buyers and renters caught in limbo.

- 'Recipe for chaos' -

The easing of restrictions comes as the government attempts to revive the economy, which fell two percent in the first quarter, its worst drop since the 2008 financial crisis.

In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, people are still being asked to stay at home, opening a political rift between London and the devolved administrations in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast.

Scotland's nationalist First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has been particularly critical, calling on businesses to ignore the "premature" advice to return to work.

She has vowed not to play "Russian roulette" with people's lives because of indications of higher infection rates in Scotland.

The leader of her party in the UK parliament, Ian Blackford, accused Johnson of "risking weeks of progress" in tackling the virus by re-opening too soon.

Unions meanwhile have warned of a "recipe for chaos" in the workplace as employers try to accommodate returning workers while complying with social distancing rules.

Others have claimed that lower-paid, lower-skilled workers in sectors such as construction and manufacturing are being put more at risk than white-collar staff able to stay at home.

"More mixed messages from the government -– saying there's no end to lockdown, but asking everyone to go back to work," added John Philips, acting general secretary of the GMB union.