THE easing of lockdown restrictions south of the Border is “unlikely” to push the R rate of infection above the critical level of one, Downing St has insisted, as long as the public keeps to the two-metre social distancing rule.

No 10 made its remarks after pictures over the weekend showed some beaches and parks in England crammed with people, many of whom appeared not to be abiding by the social distancing measures.

Referring to the weekend scenes, Jeanelle de Gruchy, President of the Association of Directors of Public Health, made clear public health directors were concerned that the public was "not keeping to social distancing as it was".

With UK deaths linked to Covid-19 rising above 48,000, she said the NHS test and trace programme in England was “currently far from being the robust operation that is now urgently required as a safeguard to easing restrictions".

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Dr de Gruchy added: "Directors of public health are increasingly concerned that the Government is misjudging this balancing act and lifting too many restrictions, too quickly."

Asked if Boris Johnson was worried about this assertion, his spokesman said: “Over the course of the pandemic people across the country have made huge sacrifices and we thank them for it. We all still need to play our part and it’s important people continue to follow the social distancing guidelines and stay two metres apart.”

He went on: “It’s only because of the hard work of the British public that we have been able to ease the social distancing measures in a very cautious and gradual way. We will only continue to keep the virus under control if people continue to follow the social distancing rules.”

Asked about the earlier contention from Alok Sharma, the UK Government’s Business Secretary, that the current measures meant there was a “good likelihood” the R-rate of infection would remain below one, the spokesman said: “Based on scientific advice and having test and trace up and running, it’s our position that if the public follow the social distancing guidance, then the measures which we’ve taken are unlikely to push the R above one.”

The spokesman said the Prime Minister had last week acknowledged there would be further local outbreaks and explained: “We will be monitoring carefully and, where necessary, we will put the brakes on and reimpose some of the previous measures.”

Asked if the lockdown restrictions could be reimposed at a national level, he suggested this was a hypothetical question but placed the stress on a localised level, noting: “If there is an outbreak at a school in Cornwall for instance it wouldn’t necessarily to close all of the schools in Newcastle.”

Asked about concerns from public health leaders and science advisers that the restrictions were being lifted too soon, the spokesman replied: “We have worked to gradually and safely ease the lockdown measures. The consensus from scientists was that if test and trace was up and running and the public followed the social distancing guidance, then it’s unlikely the measures will push the R above one but we continue to monitor this and if there are any localised outbreaks, then we will take whatever steps are needed to ensure we are properly controlling the virus.”

The easing of the lockdown came despite the alert level remaining at four, which the Government previously said would mean restrictions remaining in place.

Last week, Professor Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer for England, the newly-established Joint Biosecurity Centre discussed the threat level but did not alter it, Downing Street pointed out.

No 10 also said that it expected the majority of primary schools in England to open to more children this week as the spokesman insisted: "We have only taken this step because we believe it is safe to do so."

With some public health leaders, trade unions, local authorities and parents all expressing concerns about the return of some schools, it was suggested that only around half of England’s two million primary school children would return to their classrooms this week.

A survey of local authorities by the Press Association news agency found more than 20 councils across England, predominantly in the north, were advising schools not to open.

Some raised concerns that the test and trace programme was not yet "robust enough" to sufficiently reduce Covid-19 transmission in schools, where social distancing is hard to maintain.

Earlier, in response to fears the easing of the lockdown restrictions was being rushed, Mr Sharma declared: "This is not a dash. These are very cautious steps that we are taking; they are phased."

Asked about the R-rate, he pointed out SAGE, the Government’s group of medical and scientific experts, had made clear the lockdown must be eased "cautiously".

The Secretary of State insisted: “That's precisely what we're doing. And what they also said is if people comply with the rules and the test and trace system is up and running, which it has been since Thursday, then there is a good likelihood that we will not breach the R value factor above one."

His comments followed a claim by Dr de Gruchy that the Government’s five tests to begin unlocking the restrictions had not yet been met.

She said: "In terms of the R, it's 0.7 to 0.9 in the latest Government assessment. It is below one but it's a very limited room for manoeuvre isn't it and we know how quickly this virus can spread and it's difficult to predict then with quite a lot of the measures being eased at once what the impact that will have on the R value.

"We're also concerned about meeting all the other operational challenges ready to meet a potential rise in infections," explained Dr de Gruchy.

From today in England a range of measures are being eased provided that social distancing measures are maintained. These include:

*the return of primary school pupils to their classes - in Scotland, teachers can return to schools from today to prepare for the start of the new school year on August 11 when pupils will do a hybrid of learning at school and at home;

*groups of up to six people can meet outdoors – in Scotland, the number is up to eight, which came into effect on Friday;

*outdoor retail such as markets and car showrooms can reopen – in Scotland, garden centres and plant nurseries were able to open for business last Friday and

*those regarded as clinically extremely vulnerable with underlying health conditions, who have been shielding at home, will be able to venture outside for the first time in 10 weeks – in Scotland, the stay at home message for this group continues until at least June 18.