Nicola Sturgeon today signalled she is willing to ease coronavirus restrictions in Scotland independently of the UK government as Northern Ireland also appeared set to follow suit.
The Scottish First Minister today published an early version of how the current state of lockdown could be lifted north of the border as she said there needed to be a ‘better balance’ between tackling the disease and protecting the economy.
She said she wanted to have a ‘grown up’ discussion with the public about how to restore some ‘semblance of normality to our lives’.
Her comments and the publication of her blueprint piles pressure on Downing Street to set out its own end-of-lockdown plan.
It comes after Arlene Foster suggested Northern Ireland could emerge from coronavirus restrictions at a faster pace than other parts of the UK.
Northern Ireland’s First Minister said lockdown measures will be eased when certain scientific and public health criteria – such as the rate of infection and death rate – are met and not against set timelines or dates.
Many of the powers relating to the current lockdown are devolved which means Scotland and Northern Ireland could in theory opt to do their own thing.
So far the four Home Nations have been broadly on the same page in terms of action taken during the crisis and any decision to split from that way of working would have major political and social ramifications.
The publication of the new Scottish document is likely to spark fresh anger in Downing Street.
Dominic Raab said last night it will be weeks before ministers even ‘think about’ putting forward a comprehensive exit strategy while Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty said some restrictions are likely to be in place for the ‘next calendar year’.
But furious Tory MPs have warned the government it must spell out in detail how it intends to ease the UK’s coronavirus lockdown to give businesses hope of survival.
There have been signs in recent days that some people are beginning to tire of the curbs on daily life with photographs showing more people on the UK’s roads, using London’s underground and in the nation’s parks.
Meanwhile, the hospitality industry has warned pubs and restaurants are facing a ‘bloodbath’ if the lockdown lasts long into the future as it calls for rent payments to be delayed amid fears one third of the sector could go bust.
Nicola Sturgeon today signalled she is prepared to ease Scotland’s coronavirus lockdown independently of the UK government
Dominic Raab, pictured in Westminster today, warned at the daily Downing Street press conference yesterday it will be weeks before ministers even ‘think about’ putting forward a comprehensive exit strategy
The row over lockdown came as:
- Business Secretary Alok Sharma revealed 387,000 firms have applied to the government’s furlough scheme in its first three days, covering almost three million workers.
- The Office for National Statistics said a survey found a quarter of firms have temporarily halted trading.
- The UK government is preparing to change its guidance on the wearing of face masks in favour of coverings being voluntarily warn on public transport and in shops.
- German Chancellor Angela Merkel suggested some of the country’s states had eased lockdown too soon.
- Ryanair chief executive Michael O’Leary insisted his planes will not fly with an empty middle seat as he blasted ‘idiotic’ in-flight social distancing measures being considered by the Irish government.
- The government is reportedly setting up a 15,000 army of contact tracers who will help stop future outbreaks as part of a South Korea-style test and trace programme.
Angela Merkel says some German states have eased lockdown too quickly
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said that some states have gone too far in easing coronavirus lockdowns and warned the country is still at the beginning of its outbreak, not the end.
Speaking to the German parliament this morning she told ministers that ‘we can’t return to life like it was before coronavirus’ and cautioned that the country will have to live with the virus for a long time.
‘We are in for the long haul,’ she said. ‘We must not lose energy before we reach the end.’
She added: ‘It would be a terrible shame if our hope punishes us.’
Mrs Merkel spoke as Germany’s coronavirus death toll passed 5,000 after 215 more people died – bringing the total from 4,879 to 5,094.
Ms Sturgeon has repeatedly gazumped Number 10 during the coronavirus crisis as she has moved on key issues before ministers in London.
Previous examples include announcing a ban on large social gatherings, closing schools and saying that the original three week lockdown would be extended.
The end-of-lockdown strategy document published by the Scottish government today makes clear that in the immediate future some changes to everyday life will remain in place.
Ms Sturgeon told a briefing at lunchtime that the Scottish government ‘wants to ease restrictions, of course we do’ as she warned that any easing could ultimately have to be reversed.
Signalling she is willing to take Scotland in a different direction to the rest of the UK, she said: ‘While today’s paper is still quite high level it is the start of a process. It sets out the objectives and the principles that will guide us, the different factors we will need to take into account, the framework in which we will take decisions and the preparations we need to make now.
‘In the days and the weeks ahead, evidence, data and modelling will allow us to take firmer decisions. As that happens this paper will evolve into a detailed plan with metrics, actions, milestones and measurements attached to it.’
Ms Sturgeon stressed that suppressing the spread of coronavirus will always be the Scottish government’s main aim.
But she added: ‘This virus causes real harm and we see that everyday in the statistics that we report, especially in the numbers of people who have died.
‘But the lockdown measures we are taking to contain the virus are also doing damage. They are doing harm to the economy, to living standards, to children’s education, to other aspects of our physical health and to mental health and wellbeing.
Government set to update guidance on face masks
Britons are set to be told it will not be compulsory to wear masks to prevent the spread of coronavirus – but they will be advised to wear DIY face coverings at work, in shops and on public transport.
The government’s top scientific experts have been reviewing key evidence and ministers are expected to issue new guidance to the public by the weekend.
The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) is believed to be backing advice on wearing a cloth face mask – such as a homemade mask or scarf – in areas where social distancing is not possible.
This will mean asking people to cover their nose and mouth when they go to the shops and travel on trains, but won’t apply to being in parks and quiet, residential streets.
The experts are set to say it should not be compulsory and that the wearing of masks should be left up to the individual.
‘The toll of all of that may also in time be measured in poorer health outcomes and lives lost so we must try to find a better balance than the one we have right now.’
Senior figures at Holyrood are insistent the paper has been designed to start a discussion on what measures will need to stay in effect.
But the publication of the blueprint is unlikely to be well received in Whitehall where ministers are adamant the focus must remain on slowing the spread of the virus, with Mr Raab saying yesterday the UK must not ‘take our eye off the ball’.
The impact of coronavirus has not been as severe in Northern Ireland as it has been in other parts of the UK with the region having recorded 250 deaths in the pandemic as of yesterday.
Mrs Foster was asked whether the contrasting experiences meant Northern Ireland could move away from lockdown at a different pace to the rest of the UK.
‘It will be led by the criteria that will be set down and agreed by ourselves in the Northern Ireland Executive in conjunction with the our colleagues in the other parts of the UK,’ she told Cool FM.
‘And because of that you could well see different parts of the United Kingdom move in different time to other parts, because it will be criteria-led.’
There have been signs in recent days of people potentially growing tired with lockdown as more traffic has returned to the UK’s roads. The M5 is pictured today near Bristol
Construction employees are pictured working on a building site this morning in Lewisham, South East London
Crowds of commuters board a Jubilee line train at Canning Town station on the London Underground this morning
Customers wait outside a B&Q store at Sutton In Ashfield in Nottinghamshire which has opened its doors this morning
Health chiefs launch new bid to determine spread of coronavirus in Britain
Health chiefs have finally launched a mass coronavirus antibody testing study to trace how far the killer disease has already spread in Britain.
A thousand households will have their blood samples taken every month by a nurse or trained medic, the Department of Health last night announced.
Antibodies are substances made by the immune system in response to an infection and can be picked-up by a simple finger-prick blood test.
The announcement marks a step forward after months of the government dragging its feet on a programme which scientists say is essential to ending lockdown because it’s the only way of getting a true picture of the size of the outbreak.
Antibody testing, which has been picked up on much larger scale in other countries, forms a vital part of the government’s ‘five-pillar’ testing strategy – but officials have so far only managed 4,900 tests.
The UK government is yet to identify a mass produced antibody test which is sufficiently accurate to be rolled out nationwide.
The new British sampling scheme is dwarfed by one being carried out in the Italian region of Lombardy, for example, where medics now plan to do 20,000 tests per day.
British officials have also begun a separate scheme to carry out regular swab tests on 25,000 people, who will be tested around 15 times a year to see whether they have the disease, so the government can keep track of its spread.
Senior backbenchers on the 1922 Committee of Conservative MPs met yesterday to discuss the government’s response to the current crisis.
They said it is ‘silly’ for ministers not to be totally frank with the public about an exit plan given how well most of the population has stuck to social distancing measures.
They stressed ‘there has got to be an economy to go back to’ as they sounded a warning which will be heard loud and clear in Downing Street.
The committee’s treasurer, Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, then broke cover today as he suggested a comprehensive plan must be set out within the next month or many businesses ‘are actually likely to cease trading’.
‘We have got to think about the number of businesses, particularly small businesses, that unless they get some form of indication when they might be able to get back into business that are actually likely to cease trading,’ he told the BBC.
‘Every business that ceases trading is a job or more than one lost.’
Last night Mr Raab delivered a tough message to Britons wearying of the lockdown, warning that the UK is still ‘going through the peak’ of coronavirus.
The First Secretary of State said it was not the time to ‘take our eye off the ball’ as he rejected claims the government is preparing to ease curbs in mid-May.
Meanwhile, Prof Whitty suggested some form of restrictions will have to remain in place for the ‘next calendar year’.
He said the only way to completely get back to normal life is if a vaccine is developed which works or if drugs are developed which can stop so many people dying from the disease.
He told the daily Downing Street press conference: ‘Until we have those – and the probability of having those any time in the next calendar year are incredibly small – we should be realistic that we’re going to have to rely on other social measures, which of course are very socially disruptive as everyone is finding at the moment.’
The row over when the government will set out its plans detailing how lockdown will be eased came as Business Secretary Alok Sharma today revealed almost 400,000 businesses have made applications to the government’s coronavirus furlough scheme.
The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme only opened for applications on Monday this week but as of 4pm yesterday some 387,000 firms have applied for help.
Official statistics showed yesterday that the number of people in hospital with coronavirus continues to fall in many parts of the country
Those applications cover 2.8 million workers which means the Treasury is now facing a maximum monthly bill of up to £7 billion so far based on the fact the scheme pays up to £2,500 per worker.
Meanwhile, £2.8 billion has been handed out through a government loan scheme designed to keep small and medium sized companies afloat.
But businesses are urging ministers to urgently speed up the application process in the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS) with industry groups labelling it ‘too complex and too lengthy’.
More than 38,000 completed applications for loans have now been sent to lenders to assess.
However, the number which have been approved so far is just 16,624 with the others still in the queue waiting to be processed.