UK lockdown to be extended until May at earliest, government announces

‘Light at the end of the tunnel’ but nation has ‘sacrificed too much to ease up now’, says Dominic Raab

Lizzy Buchan
Political Correspondent
,Andrew Woodcock
Thursday 16 April 2020 18:05
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UK coronavirus lockdown extended for three weeks, says Dominic Raab

The nationwide coronavirus lockdown will be extended for at least another three weeks to 7 May, Dominic Raab has announced.

Any change in social distancing measures would “risk damage to both public health and our economy”, the first secretary of state told the daily Downing Street press briefing.

Mr Raab, who is deputising for Boris Johnson while the prime minister recuperates from Covid-19, said the government’s scientific advisers had found indications that the spread of the virus had slowed but that it was a “mixed and inconsistent” picture.

The rate of infection was “almost certainly below one in the community”, he said, meaning infected people were passing the disease on to fewer than one other person on average.

“But, overall, we still don’t have the infection rate down as far as we need to,” Mr Raab added.

He said there was “light at the end of the tunnel” but warned that the nation had “sacrificed too much to ease up now” on the restrictions.

A snap poll of more than 3,400 voters by YouGov found overwhelming public support for the extension, with 91 per cent of those questioned saying they approve of a further three weeks of restrictions.

The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, gave his party’s full backing, but he said there must be ramping up of testing and “clarity about what plans are being put in place to lift the lockdown when the time is right”.

The director general of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), Carolyn Fairbairn, said the government had the “full support” of business in extending the lockdown but must start preparing an exit strategy.

“It’s not too early to start to plan, cautiously and with public health paramount, for the revival of our economy,” she said.

As the death toll in the UK rose to 13,729, Mr Raab said the decision to extend restrictions was based on recommendations to cabinet from the government’s Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage) in the first three-week review following the imposition of restrictions by Mr Johnson on 23 March.

“As in other countries, we have issues with the virus spreading in some hospitals and in care homes,” he said. “The very clear advice we received is that any change to our social distancing measures now would risk a significant increase in the spread of the virus.

“That would threaten a second peak of the virus and substantially increase the number of deaths. You would undo the progress that we’ve made to date and as a result would require an even longer period of the more restrictive social distancing measures.”

Early relaxation of the lockdown “would do more damage to the economy over the longer period” and scientific advice suggests that relaxing “any of the measures currently in place would risk damage to both public health and our economy”, he said.

Before lifting the restrictions, ministers must be assured that the NHS can cope with demand and that the outbreak has passed its peak, with infection rates decreasing to manageable levels and both testing capacity and supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) secure.

Mr Raab said: “The worst thing that we could do right now is to ease up too soon, allow a second peak of the virus to hit the NHS and hit the British people.

“It will be the worst outcome, not just for public health but for the economy for our country as a whole.”

Mr Raab did not distance himself from Mr Johnson’s previous suggestion that it would take a total of three months to get past the peak of the epidemic, but said it would be “irresponsible” to set out a timeframe for when the restrictions would be eased, saying the UK had hit a “delicate and dangerous stage” of the pandemic.

The chief scientific officer, Sir Patrick Vallance, said that experts agreed at a meeting of Sage on Tuesday that it was “highly likely” the rate of coronavirus transmission – referred to as R – was below one for each infected patient.

“That’s an important change,” he said. “It means in the community it’s likely that the virus and the epidemic is now shrinking.”

However, he added: “Sage’s view is that R is below one, that the changes we have all made to our lives have made a difference and that it’s important we continue with those in order to drive the numbers down and to get ourselves into a position where can see that this is really decreasing now as an epidemic.”

Sir Patrick indicated that the eventual lifting of restrictions might be staggered, with some or occupations returning to normal life more quickly. But he played down suggestions that the elderly might be kept in lockdown for longer than the young.

“The aim is to try and do that in a way that allows everything to start moving more towards normal – not to segregate certain groups and say there is a differential approach towards this,” he said.​

Sir Patrick stressed vaccines and therapeutics would be key to restoring normal life in the UK. “Those are going to be critically important,” he said.

Government scientific adviser Professor Neil Ferguson, of Imperial College London, had earlier told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the country would need to maintain “a significant level of social distancing, probably indefinitely until we have a vaccine available”.

Mr Raab urged the nation to stay patient, adding: “We’ve just come too far, we’ve lost too many loved ones, we’ve already sacrificed far too much to ease up now, especially when we’re beginning to see the evidence that our efforts are starting to pay off.

“And your efforts are paying off, there is light at the end of the tunnel. But we’re now at both a delicate and a dangerous stage in this pandemic.

“If we rush to relax the measures that we have in place, we would risk wasting all the sacrifices and all the progress that has been made.”

The chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, urged people with conditions such as heart disease and stroke to continue accessing NHS help as normal, amid evidence that recent weeks have seen “excess mortality” for reasons other than the coronavirus. Despite the burden of Covid-19, the NHS was “open for business” and has maintained the capacity to deal with emergencies in the usual way, he said.

“In the last week for which we have data, 3,475 people were diagnosed as having Covid – some of them in hospital, some of them outside hospital – but the excess mortality in terms of the period as a whole was somewhere between 5,000 and 6,000 people,” he said.

“That could just be random variation, but people die for many reasons in epidemics. They include the direct cause of death, but they can also include people who stayed at home because they were worried that going into hospital was dangerous for them and they have a heart attack or a stroke.

“It is really critical for people to realise that we really appreciate people taking pressure off the NHS for less urgent things, but if they are having a medical emergency like a heart attack, a stroke or a really bad flare-up of asthma which could be life-threatening ... then the NHS is open for business. We really must encourage people who have life-threatening or life-changing things to go to hospital, contact NHS 111 where that’s necessary.

“It would be very sad to have a situation where people’s activities have managed to preserve the ability to do emergencies but people are not coming forward.”

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