Only “some” of the harsh restrictions will be lifted in the weeks to come, the deputy chief medical officer warned – even if a review after Easter judged they are working.
“Three weeks for review, two or three months to see if we’ve really squashed it,” Dr Jenny Harries told a Downing Street press conference.
“But three to six months, ideally – but lots of uncertainty in that – to see at which point we can actually get back to normal. And it is plausible it could go further than that.”
In a bleak message – on the day a further 209 deaths were announced, taking the UK total to 1,228 – the deputy chief medical officer warned it would be “dangerous” to revert to normal too quickly.
“If we stop, then all of our efforts will be wasted and we could potentially see a second peak,” she urged the public to recognise.
The comments came as Robert Jenrick, the communities secretary, said all parts of the UK were now on an “emergency footing”, a status unprecedented in peacetime.
The likely turning on and off of restrictions – not “a complete lockdown” for six months, Dr Harries stressed – was set out as:
* Scotland’s chief medical officer, Dr Catherine Calderwood, suggested the current lockdown would be needed for “at least 13 weeks” to stop the spread.
* Amged El-Hawrani, a consultant at University Hospitals of Derby and Burton, became the first ‘frontline’ NHS worker to die in the fight against coronavirus.
* The government agreed to investigate a blunder that may have seen the UK miss out on an offer of 25,000 life-saving ventilators.
* Michael Gove was accused of “feeble excuses” – and of putting Chinese people in the UK at risk – after blaming Beijing for the failure to curb the spread of the disease.
* Clothes makers said the government had “dragged its heels” in ordering desperately needed personal protective equipment for NHS staff.
* Nothing was heard from the self-isolating Boris Johnson – although Mr Gove insisted he was still fully in charge.
* Tony Blair called for “a very large proportion of the entire population” to be tested, in order to truly conquer coronavirus.
When Mr Johnson announced the lockdown last Monday, he said it would last for three weeks before a review was carried out.
Ms Harries said that, although the review would take place after Easter, it would then be two to three months before it was possible to judge if the NHS had “squashed the peak” of coronavirus cases.
“We anticipate our numbers will get worse over the next week, possibly two, and then we are looking to see whether we have managed to push that curve down and we start to see a decline,” she told the press conference.
“This is not to say we would be in complete lockdown for six months, but, as a nation, we have to be really, really responsible and keep doing what we’re all doing until we’re sure we can gradually start lifting various interventions.”
That lifting would be “spaced, based on the science and our data, until we gradually come back to a normal way of living”.
Earlier, Mr Gove admitted the lockdown was poised to last longer than three weeks, saying: “I wish I could predict when this will end.”
The cabinet office minister also swerved a question about a top scientist’s new prediction that the peak of the outbreak will be in mid-April, rather than late May or early June as originally expected.
“The date of the peak depends on all of our behaviour – it’s not a fixed date in the calendar like Easter,” he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr programme.
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies