British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said he hopes the UK would return to normality before Christmas, setting out a phased removal of lockdown restrictions, but warned that while he was hoping for the best, the country must also prepare for the worst.

Britain's death toll of more than 45,000 from confirmed cases of Covid-19 is the worst in Europe but the country has begun to lift lockdown measures as case numbers and infection rates fall.

Mr Johnson has set out the latest timetable for easing, saying employers would be given more discretion over working from home rules, that the safety of larger gatherings would be evaluated, and that social distancing rules might be dropped in time for Christmas.

"It is my strong and sincere hope that we will be able to review the outstanding restrictions and allow a more significant return to normality from November at the earliest - possibly in time for Christmas," he said.

However, he stressed that the plan was conditional on success in keeping infection rates down, setting out extra healthcare funding and new powers for local government to lockdown Covid-19 hotspots.

"We're making sure we're ready for winter and planning for the worst. But even as we plan for the worst, I strongly believe we should also hope for the best," he told a news conference.

The British government has faced criticism over several aspects of its pandemic response, including that it was too slow to impose a lockdown and failed to ramp up testing capacity fast enough.

Opposition leader Keir Starmer said it was vital that Mr Johnson's plan was endorsed by experts in order to win public confidence: "This can't be done on a wing and a prayer. It requires a credible plan and national leadership."


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Mr Johnson said that from 1 August he would scrap official guidance that encouraged people to work from home and instead give employers the power to decide whether it was safe for workers to return.

He also changed his advice on public transport, telling people that anybody may now use it although they were encouraged to consider alternative means where available. Previous guidance was for people to try to avoid it.

The government set out a £3 billion cash boost for the state-funded health system which would be made available immediately, and permitted the use of private hospitals and temporary field hospitals to ease the increased winter burden.

The funding announcement applies only to the English health service, with knock-on increases for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to be set out later.

The government will also increase testing capacity and flexibility, bolster its stockpiles of protective equipment and, wary of increased pressure from other seasonal illnesses, increase its annual flu vaccination programme.

Mr Johnson also said that most leisure settings will reopen in August, although nightclubs will remain closed.

He said: "From 1 August, we will reopen most remaining leisure settings, namely bowling, skating rings, casinos and we will enable close contact services, beauticians to resume.

"Nightclubs, soft play areas - sadly - need to remain closed for now, although this will be kept under review.

"We will restart indoor performances to a live audience, subject to the success of pilots, and we will also pilot larger gatherings in venues like sport stadia, with a view to a wider reopening in the autumn.

"We will also allow wedding receptions for up to 30 people."

He added: "It is my strong and sincere hope that we will be able to review the outstanding restrictions and allow a more significant return to normality from November, at the earliest, possibly in time for Christmas."

Mr Johnson said local lockdowns can be used to control Covid-19 in future.

Speaking at a Downing Street press briefing, he said: "At the start of the pandemic, we knew far less about the spread of the virus and we had to take blanket national measures.

"National lockdown was undoubtedly the right thing to do and has saved many thousands of lives.

"Now, however, we know more about the virus, we understand the epidemiology better and our intelligence about where it is spreading is vastly improved.

"That means we can control it through targeted local action instead."

Mr Johnson said: "From tomorrow, local authorities will have new powers in their areas.

"They will be able to close specific premises, shut public outdoor spaces and cancel events.

"These powers will enable local authorities to act more quickly in response to outbreaks where speed is paramount.

"Action by local councils will not always be sufficient, so next week we will publish draft regulations on how central government can intervene more effectively at a local level.

"Where justified by the evidence, ministers will be able to close whole sectors or types of premises in an area, introduce local stay-at-home orders, prevent people entering or leaving defined areas, reduce the size of gatherings beyond the national defined rules or restrict transport systems serving local areas."