Ministers in lockdown war: Frustration grows in the Cabinet over whether to lift the lockdown in May or wait until summer
- A timeframe on the UK’s window of lockdown is now being contested
- Ministers are to decide whether restrictions should be lifted in May or in summer
- Lockdown could be lifted after the most recent extension in three weeks time
- There are real concerns regarding a possible second spike in COVID-19 cases
Ministers are torn over whether to lift the lockdown at the start of May or wait until the summer.
Frustration is growing in the Cabinet over a lack of debate on the issue as the damage to the economy mounts. It emerged on Friday night that ministers are considering two possible strategies, which are being discussed by their scientific advisers.
The first involves extending the full lockdown well into early summer to ‘push the numbers right down’ – although this would risk further damaging the economy.
The second could see restrictions lifted much earlier, potentially after the current three-week extension expires on May 8 – even though it could risk a second virus ‘peak’.
Ministers are now looking into the possibilities of a lockdown end-date, after Dominic Raab announced a three-week extension for the UK on Thursday
It came as a minister warned businesses they would have to adapt to a ‘new normal’ after the crisis has passed. This led to concerns restrictions could continue until a vaccine is ready or even afterwards – with more working from home and possible staggered work starts to try to cut the impact of the rush hour.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab announced on Thursday that the lockdown would continue for another three weeks, as he unveiled five tests ministers would use before deciding if it is safe to lift the restrictions.
It is believed some ministers are unhappy that there has not been a proper debate in Cabinet about when the lockdown could end.
On Friday Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said departments had been asked to come up with exit proposals in two weeks. The Government was forced to deny claims by Labour that it was in ‘limbo’ while Boris Johnson was recovering from the virus.
Although the Prime Minister spoke to Mr Raab on Thursday, he has not been working on his government boxes. Scientists say extending the lockdown into the summer would drastically reduce transmission rates and the ‘extremely low’ level of cases would make it easier for health officials to manage the pandemic.
On Friday Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said departments had been asked to come up with exit proposals in two weeks
A man wears a face mask whilst waiting for a train at Victoria underground train station on April 17, as London continues a prolonged period of lockdown
Business Secretary Alok Sharma told the Confederation of British Industry: ‘We have to accept that there will be a new normal’
This is because they would have the capacity to isolate anyone who tests positive, as well as tracing and testing their contacts.
However, such an approach would mean that the economy would continue to stall. The second option could see the lockdown lifted in as little as three weeks. But the rate of community transmission would still probably be relatively high at this point, and it would not be possible to individually track all cases.
This could risk a dangerous resurgence of the disease. A source close to the Government confirmed that, whichever option is followed, the plan is to lift the lockdown in stages – with outdoor spaces likely to be first and pubs last.
Under plans being drawn up, certain social distancing measures, including working from home where possible, will stay in place until there is a vaccine. Some experts believe this to be at least a year away.
Experts advising the Government have warned they are sceptical about the role a highly publicised NHS app could play in helping to end the coronavirus lockdown. It would allow mobile phones to trace users who have come into contact with infected people, alerting them to get tested.
Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty (left), Foreign Secretary Mr Raab and Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance (right) relayed the latest updates during a Downing Street briefing
But scientists say at least 80 per cent of the population would need to download the app for it to be effective, which is extremely unlikely. Mr Shapps said the pandemic could bring an end to the rush hour as businesses and governments move towards staggered shifts and remote working.
He told the BBC’s Today programme: ‘The world probably will not go back to how it was before in a whole manner of different ways. ‘It may well be in the future that companies say, “it’s actually worked very well having some of our staff work from remote locations, why don’t we carry on doing that?”’
Business Secretary Alok Sharma told the Confederation of British Industry: ‘We have to accept that there will be a new normal.
‘The level at which social distancing will continue, you can have a discussion around that, but clearly we are not going to go back to the way we were before this pandemic.’