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.
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 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’.
However, in a sign tensions are likely to rise, Dominic Raab said last night it will be weeks before ministers even ‘think about’ putting forward an exit strategy while Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty said some restrictions are likely to be in place for the ‘next calendar year’.
The UKHospitality industry body has warned pubs and restaurants face a ‘bloodbath’ if lockdown extends long into the future amid calls for firms to be given a reprieve in the form of delayed rent payments. Failure to take such action could see one third of the sector go bust.
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 and in the nation’s parks.
Pressure is only likely to grow on the government to provide more details of its plans with Nicola Sturgeon today due to set out her own strategy for easing restrictions.
The Scottish government will publish a new paper containing guidelines designed to chart a way forward when lockdown is eased. It will say that people will need to adapt to a ‘new normal’.
It came as it emerged the government is pressing ahead with plans to set up a 15,000 strong contact tracing army which will play a key role in stopping future outbreaks of the killer bug in Britain.
It will be based on the system used in South Korea which has successfully managed to minimise its own outbreak through the use of extensive contact tracing of people who have become infected.
Professor Chris Whitty said yesterday some social distancing measures are likely to remain in place for the next year
Dominic Raab, pictured in Number 10 yesterday, is under pressure to set out the government’s coronavirus exit strategy in detail
Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish First Minister, will today publish a new paper setting out her own ideas to ease lockdown
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.
The 1922 Committee met yesterday as senior Tory MPs outlined their fears for what a prolonged lockdown could do to the UK economy in the long term.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak and the government’s budget watchdog, the Office for Budget Responsibility, have suggested the economy should bounce back relatively quickly once measures are lifted.
But Conservative MPs are increasingly concerned that the longer restrictions are in place without a blueprint for a return to normal life being announced, the higher the damage will be to UK plc.
Members of the committee reportedly said the government needs to give firms ‘the certainty they need to survive’.
One member said ministers ‘simply have to get on with it’ and set out their plan in full, according to The Telegraph.
‘The idea that the public can’t be trusted with the facts is frankly quite silly, they’ve handled lockdown incredibly well,’ they said.
Another member of the committee claimed that was also the view of the ‘vast majority of the Cabinet’.
The Times reported that Sir Charles Walker, vice-chairman of the committee, said: ‘There has got to be an economy to go back to.’
Mr Clifton-Brown, the committee’s treasurer, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning the government must ‘start this discussion of how we get back to normality’.
He said: ‘We all understand that this is a killer virus potentially and therefore whatever we do needs to be done gradually.
‘But I think that we could, when the figures start to stabilise a bit more – the number of cases, the number of deaths – start to stabilise a bit more in the next sort of three to four weeks hopefully we could begin to think about what are the next steps on a step by step basis to begin to get back to normality.
‘I don’t see any reason why things like garden centres, DIY stores, with proper social isolating couldn’t begin to open.
‘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.
‘Every business that ceases trading is a job or more than one lost.’
Ms Sturgeon will today pile pressure on ministers in Whitehall as she publishes her own end-of-lockdown plan.
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.
A new Scottish government paper will make clear that in the immediate future, some changes to everyday life will remain in place.
Speaking ahead of its publication, the First Minister and SNP leader said: ‘The lockdown measures currently in place are absolutely necessary to suppress the virus, protect our health service and to save lives.
‘But we need to chart a way forward, and this paper sets out the principles that will guide us.
‘The public across Scotland have acted responsibly in the face of this ongoing threat, and it is only right that we treat people like grown-ups by sharing our thinking with them on how we can move beyond the current lockdown phase.
‘This paper is high level at this stage but will evolve into a detailed plan as our evidence develops.
‘Life may not return to normal for some time yet, but there is a way forward, and ultimately we will come through this challenge.’
One of the key pillars of the UK government’s plan to get out of lockdown will be a new contract tracing army.
Downing Street’s slides yesterday showed that the UK is broadly continuing to follow the trajectory of outbreaks in France and Spain
But the official statistics showed that the number of people in hospital with coronavirus continues to fall in many parts ofthe country
The number of people dying in hospital fell yesterday, but the number was still higher than at the weekend
Nicola Sturgeon sets out her own plan for easing lockdown
Nicola Sturgeon will today pile pressure on the UK government to set out a plan for easing the coronavirus lockdown as the Scottish First Minister publishes her own strategy for getting back to normal.
The Scottish government will publish a paper later today containing guidelines which Ms Sturgeon hopes will help chart a way forward for when social distancing restrictions begin to be lifted.
The paper will say that people will need to get used to a ‘new normal’ when draconian measures are replaced with something more flexible.
Ms Sturgeon’s decision to press ahead, independent of the British government, suggests the SNP leader is leaving the door open to Scotland taking a different approach to the one advocated in Westminster.
Many of the powers relating to the current lockdown are devolved which means Scotland could in theory opt to do its own thing.
Last night Arlene Foster suggested Northern Ireland could emerge from coronavirus restrictions at a faster pace than other parts of the UK.
The First Minister said lockdown measures will be eased when certain scientific and public health criteria are met and not against set timelines or dates.
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 Times said officials are creating a scheme which will see 15,000 staff tasked with identifying people with coronavirus and then figuring out who they have been in contact with.
The aim is to have the test and trace initiative up and running by May 7 so that it is ready when the next review of lockdown takes place.
The UK stopped contact tracing early on in the outbreak as the spread of the disease outstripped testing capacity.
But officials believe Health Secretary Matt Hancock will hit his target of 100,000 daily tests by the end of the month which will allow the government to resume test and trace in the near future.
The aim will be to track down 80 per cent of people an infected person has been in contact with within 24 hours of them testing positive with everyone then told to self-isolate.
A Cabinet Office official said: ‘We cannot announce any easing of the lockdown until we know that testing and contact tracing is working effectively.
‘This is why we need to have the capacity for 100,000 tests by the end of the month because even if we are not using them now we will need them at that point.’
It is thought the testing programme will consist of three tiers: an app using bluetooth to log contacts, a team of temporary contact tracers numbering in the thousands and a high level team of Pubic Health England staff who will handle outbreaks in critical settings like hospitals and care homes.
Speaking in the Commons yesterday Mr Hancock said: ‘We are ramping up our testing capacity and our capacity for contact tracing in a matter of weeks, and we’ll have it ready to make sure that we can use that as and when the incidence of transmission comes down.’
The number of new cases announced yesterday was up on the previous day but down on the weekend
A slightly different way of presenting the death stats, this graph looks at death rates for seven day periods on a rolling basis, with the UK among the highest but far below the United States
Angela Merkel says some German states have eased lockdown too fast
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.
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 said it was not the time to ‘take our eye off the ball’ as he rejected claims the government is preparing to ease the draconian curbs in mid-May.
And he told the daily briefing that it will be weeks before ministers will be able to even ‘think about’ putting forward an exit strategy.
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.’