The UK’s coronavirus lockdown will remain in place for at least another three weeks to ensure the country gets over the peak of the epidemic, the government has announced.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, who is deputising for Prime Minister Boris Johnson as he recovers from COVID-19, confirmed the extension following advice from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE).
Speaking at Downing Street’s daily coronavirus news briefing, Mr Raab said: “The government has decided that the current measures must remain in place for at least the next three weeks.”
He said SAGE had advised that “relaxing any of the measures in place” would “undo the progress we have made” and would “risk damage to both public health and the economy”.
The extension takes the lockdown to at least 7 May, and Mr Raab hinted it would likely go further in light of a previous suggestion by the prime minister that the UK could “turn the tide” of the virus within 12 weeks.
Mr Johnson made the comment on 19 March, and Mr Raab admitted that was “broadly the outline” for when the UK might expect to return to some normalcy.
Mr Raab laid out five factors the government “must be satisfied of” before considering changes to the lockdown:
- Confidence that the NHS can still provide sufficient critical care and specialist treatment across the UK.
- Need to see a sustained and consistent fall in the daily death rate to be confident we are beyond the peak.
- Reliable data from SAGE that the infection rate has decreased to manageable levels.
- Testing capacity and PPE is in hand to meet supply for future demand.
- Not risk a second peak of infection that overwhelms the NHS.
“We’ve come too far, lost too many loved ones and sacrificed too much to let up now – especially when we are now beginning to see that our efforts are paying off,” said Mr Raab.
“There is light at the end of the tunnel, but we are at a delicate and dangerous stage of this pandemic.”
Ahead of Thursday’s news conference, the unprecedented lockdown had already surpassed the original three-week timescale laid out by the prime minister last month.
The extension keeps people indoors, only leaving the house for one hour of exercise per day, to shop for essential supplies like food, for medical assistance, or to go to work if doing so from home is not possible.
There are no measures being lifted for now as the UK remains a few weeks behind other European countries badly hit by the pandemic, with Italy and Spain having slightly eased some restrictionsfollowing consistent daily falls in their infection and death rates.
Mr Raab said that while the lockdown had seen the rate of infection drop significantly, there were still “issues with the virus spreading in some hospitals and care homes”.
The extension came after Mr Raab led a cabinet meeting where ministers were briefed on SAGE’s advice by the government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance.
After then dialling in to a meeting of G7 leaders led by US President Donald Trump, First Secretary of State Mr Raab chaired another meeting of the government’s emergency COBRA committee.
The leaders of the devolved administrations for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland joined in by video link as the lockdown was formally extended.
Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford had stolen Mr Raab’s thunder minutes before the government’s briefing began, confirming that the leaders of each administration had agreed to keep the measures in place.
The extension announcement was widely expected, with ministers and some of the government’s top medical and scientific personnel having spent recent days warning that it was too early to consider lifting any restrictions.
Chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty told Wednesday’s news briefing that while the UK was “probably reaching the peak” of the epidemic, thousands more would die before attention turns to easing the lockdown.
Earlier on Thursday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock told Sky News that it would take time for the measures to be phased out and for life to get back to something resembling normality.
He told Kay Burley@Breakfast: “It is too early to say now that we should remove the measures.
“People can see that while we may be reaching a peak the numbers aren’t coming down yet.”
The number of deaths of coronavirus patients in UK hospitals jumped by 861 to 13,729 on Thursday, after four consecutive days in which the increases had been below 800.
It has also been well established that the UK’s true COVID-19 death toll is higher than the hospital figures suggest.
The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics suggested there were around 75% more coronavirus-related fatalities in England and Wales last month than previously reported by the government.
More than half of those happened in care homes, while others took place in people’s homes and in hospices.
On Wednesday, the National Records of Scotland revealed that – as of 12 April – almost 25% of 962 registered deaths where COVID-19 was mentioned in the death certificate in Scotland had occurred in care homes.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the government must ensure “more is done to protect our care homes” before considering any lockdown changes.
He said: “I fully support the government’s decision to extend the lockdown.
“The priority now must be to ensure we see a ramp up in testing, that staff get the PPE they desperately need and more is done to protect our care homes from the virus.
“We also need clarity about what plans are being put in place to lift the lockdown when the time is right.”