Ministers have been accused of ‘treating the public like children’ by refusing to discuss how they may steer the UK out of lockdown – as Scotland’s first minister Nicola Surgeon promises to set out an exit strategy next week.
Alok Sharma, the business secretary, claimed that discussing an exit plan detailing how restrictions may come to an end with the public during the daily coronavirus briefings would only ‘muddy the waters’ and undermine the ‘stay at home’ message.
Meanwhile Tory former party leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith said the Government should stop treating people ‘like children’ by refusing to discuss exit strategies for ending the lockdown.
He told the Times: ‘The Government is going to have to accept and admit we are coming out of lockdown.
‘We need to trust the British people and not treat them like children. We must respect their common sense. They need to know that the sun is rising at some point in an economic sense.’
Alok Sharma, the business secretary, claimed that discussing an exit plan detailing how restrictions may come to an end with the public would only ‘muddy the waters’ and undermine the ‘stay at home’ message, April 17
According to the Daily Telegraph, ministers have not agreed a strategy and will not formulate a plan until Boris Johnson resumes his duties as Prime Minister.
Mr Johnson is continuing his recovery at Chequers and is not doing Government work, according to a Government spokesman.
Other cabinet ministers are said to agree privately with Sir Iain Duncan Smith’s view that the government will lose the public’s support if they continue to play their cards to close to their chest, reports The Times.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps revealed today that Britons should hold off booking summer holidays until the ‘trajectory’ of the coronavirus outbreak is clearer – as he admitted an ‘exit plan’ from lockdown will not be unveiled for at least two weeks.
He said he had no intention of lining up a break himself amid fears that travel curbs could drag on for months to come.
Sir Keir Starmer (right) accused Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab (left) of being ‘reluctant’ to sign off a strategy while the PM is still recuperating from his own infection at Chequers
And Mr Shapps raised fresh fears about drift in the government by revealing that medical and scientific advisers have been asked to present their options for easing the draconian social distancing measures in a fortnight’s time.
The extraordinary schedule emerged despite mounting pressure to show how the country can get out of the crisis that is threatening to tear the economy to shreds.
Labour leader Keir Starmer accused Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab of being ‘reluctant’ to sign off a plan while Boris Johnson is still recuperating from his own infection at Chequers.
Britons should hold off booking summer holidays until the ‘trajectory’ of the coronavirus outbreak is clearer, Grant Shapps suggested today
Meanwhile, Nicola Sturgeon fueled the row by insisting she is ‘treating the public like grown ups’ by unveiling her own ‘framework’ next week for how lockdown could be phased out.
Mr Shapps told LBC radio: ‘We’ve said now that this three-week period will contain a review by the scientists at the end of this month, so that’s actually only two weeks away, whilst they’ll be reviewing this.
‘And I hope we’ll be in a position to provide, well I know we’ll be in a position to provide, greater clarity.’
On another helter-skelter day in the coronavirus crisis:
- Britain’s coronavirus daily death toll today dipped slightly to 847, fuelling hopes that the UK’s fatality curve is finally flattening after days of uncertainty;
- China has revised its coronavirus death toll in Wuhan province upwards by 50 per cent, fuelling suspicions it has covered up the scale of the outbreak;
- London mayor Sadiq Khan has urged Londoners to wear facemasks despite doctors warning that they can actually make people more likely to get infected;
- A survey of thousands of care homes for ITV has revealed that 42 per cent report coronavirus cases, amid fury at shambolic testing and a lack of PPE for staff;
- A think-tank has warned the government’s watchdog might have underplayed the potential hit to the economy from lockdown, as it assumed there would not be permanent damage to capacity;
Announcing in Downing Street last night that the curbs will stay for at least another three weeks, Mr Raab said there was ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ and the outbreak was coming under control.
But he rejected calls for an ‘exit strategy’ to be unveiled now, amid fears that the public would assume the restrictions are about to be lifted. ‘We are being as open as we responsibly can at this stage,’ he said.
But Ms Sturgeon struck a notably different tone this morning.
Raab’s five criteria before loosening lockdown
Dominic Raab batted away calls to to set out an ‘exit strategy’ from lockdown tonight.
Instead he merely offered five criteria for when the lockdown could start being loosened. #
1. Ensure NHS can provide enough critical care treatment
2. A ‘sustained and consistent fall’ in daily death rate
3. Reliable data showing rate of infection is decreasing to manageable levels
4. Testing capacity and PPE supply are ready to meet future demand
5. There is no risk of second peak to overwhelm the NHS
Speaking on the BBC’s Coronavirus Newscast podcast last night, Sir Keir said: ‘I think that throughout this they’ve struggled with taking decisions quickly enough…
‘It feels as though they’ve been in a position probably for a week or 10 days now where it’s been difficult for the Government to make big decisions. And I think there’s a bit of that lying behind this as well.
‘I suspect, although I don’t know, that Dominic Raab is just reluctant – he probably does know that it’s time for an exit strategy – but he’s probably reluctant to sign it off without the Prime Minister and I think there’s a bit of that in the mix.’
‘I’m not going to set out next week the date on which lockdown will be lifted,’ she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme
‘What I’m going to try to do is set out the decision-making framework that we’re operating in, so that we are treating the public like grown-ups that they are.’
In what might be the first glimmerings of a plan, Mr Shapps speculated that in future businesses could help reduce risks by allowing staff to come in at different times.
Asked whether passenger numbers could be restricted during rush hour after lockdown measures are removed, Mr Shapps said: ‘It may well be in the future companies say actually it’s worked pretty well having some of our staff working from remote locations, why don’t we carry on doing that?
‘Actually why does everybody have to get up and travel during the rush hour at a particular time in the morning?’
Around half the public are now resigned to the draconian ‘social distancing’ curbs being in place into June
He added: ‘There may be different ways to help, both in terms of businesses and organisations making those decisions, but also to do with the way that Government responds to spread the load better.’
Mr Shapps also warned people off planning summer holidays – as the crisis threatens to drag on through the middle of the year.
He said ‘clearly people will want to see what the trajectory of this disease is in the next few weeks’.
He told Today: ‘I won’t be booking a summer holiday at this point, let’s put it that way.’
Asked about the comments today, Downing Street pointed to the lockdown restrictions in force making clear that they meant people should not go on holiday.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has advised against all but essential international travel since March 17.
These measures have hit travel firms hard, with trips being cancelled and many people – such as Mr Shapps – delaying making future bookings.
A number of companies have furloughed staff due to the sector grinding to a halt.
WHAT IS R0? AND WHAT DOES IT MEAN IF IT IS LESS THAN ONE?
Every infectious disease is given a reproduction number, which is known as R0 – pronounced ‘R nought’.
It is a value that represents how many people one sick person will, on average, infect.
WHAT IS THE R0 FOR COVID-19?
The R0 value for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is estimated to be around 2.5.
But some experts analysing outbreaks across the world have estimated it could be closer to the 6.6
Estimates of the R0 vary because the true size of the pandemic remains a mystery.
HOW DOES IT COMPARE TO OTHER VIRUSES?
It is thought to be at least three times more contagious than the coronavirus that causes MERS (0.3 – 0.8).
Measles is one of the most contagious infectious diseases, and has an R0 value of 12 to 18.
Chickenpox’s R0 is estimated to be between 10 and 12, while seasonal flu has a value of around 1.5.
WHY IS IT IMPORTANT TO HAVE A LOW R0?
The higher the R0 value, the harder it is for health officials control the spread of the disease.
A number lower than one means the outbreak will run out of steam and be forced to an end.
This is because the infectious disease will quickly run out of new victims to strike.
HOW IS IT CALCULATED
Researchers take into account several factors when assessing an infectious disease’s R0.
They include how long patients stay infectious for, contact rate and the mode of transmission.
For instance, some strains of influenza and the common cold are contagious for up to eight days.
Experts say COVID-19 is infectious up to three days before symptoms begin until three days after symptoms end.
But one Yale University study found that patients were still infectious up to eight days after symptoms vanished.
NUMBER OF CONTACTS
Another factor depends on how many people the infected come into contact with that aren’t vaccinated or immune.
If the infectious disease causes severe symptoms early, many patients would stay at home and have little contact.
For example, Ebola is known to have a low R0 (2) because it tends to develop before tell-tale symptoms appear.
But if it had a longer incubation period – the length of time before symptoms begin – then it would have a higher R0.
This is because the infected would come into contact with more people, allowing the virus to spread.
Transmission mode can also play a role, with viruses spread through the air known to be more contagious.
With COVID-19, evidence shows that it can be caught by breathing near an infected patient.
The virus can also live on surfaces, meaning it can be picked up without ever touching someone.
But Ebola is spread through bodily fluids, making it harder to catch the virus.
HOW DOES A LOCKDOWN BRING DOWN THE R0?
The UK’s draconian lockdown imposed on March 23 has slowed Britain’s coronavirus crisis, studies show.
Scientists at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine last month analysed the virus in the UK.
They estimated each infected patient may now only be passing COVID-19 on to 0.62 others, down from 2.6.
The team said the virus was struggling to spread because people were having less contact with others.
They used a survey of 1,300 people who were asked to list what human contact they had in the past 24 hours.
This was compared to a similar survey done in 2005 to give an idea of how it had changed because of lockdown.
Instead of an exit plan, Mr Raab last night merely offered five criteria for when the lockdown could start being loosened. They are certainty that the NHS will not be overwhelmed, a consistent reduction in the death rate, evidence that transmission is at manageable levels, capacity for wide scale testing and PPE provision, and low danger of a ‘second peak’.
In a sombre speech in Downing Street, Mr Raab – who is deputising during Mr Johnson’s recovery – said: ‘Overall, we still don’t have the infection rate down as far as we need to.
‘As in other countries we have issues with the virus spreading in some hospitals and in care homes and in sum, the very clear advice we have 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.
‘It would undo the progress we have made to date and as a result would require an even longer period of the more restrictive social distancing measures.
‘So early relaxation would do more damage to the economy over a longer period and I want to be really clear about this.
‘The advice from SAGE is that relaxing any of the measures currently in place would risk damage to both public health and our economy.’
He added: ‘Based on this advice which we very carefully considered the government has decided that the current measures must remain in place for at least the next three weeks.’
Mr Raab said the public needed to show ‘patience’ and stick with the restrictions to stop the spread of the virus.
‘There is light at the end of the tunnel but we are now at both a delicate and a dangerous stage in this pandemic,’ he said.
‘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.
‘That would risk a quick return to another lockdown with all the threat to life that a second peak to the virus would bring and all the economic damage that a second lockdown would carry.’
Mr Raab said when the government has met its criteria it will look to adjust the measures to make them ‘as effective as possible in protecting public health whilst allowing some economic and social activity to resume’.
‘But we will only do it when the evidence demonstrates that it is safe to do it,’ he said.
‘It could involve relaxing measures in some areas while strengthening measures in other areas.’
Government adviser James Rubin, who sits on the behavioural insights group, told MPs yesterday that openness on the plan was crucial and it was ‘very important that people have their expectations set on this’.
In a bad-tempered interview yesterday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said he recognised that ‘everybody wants to know what the future looks like’.
But he flatly dismissed calls for the government to flesh out how the restrictions will finally be eased, despite mounting fears that they are wreaking havoc on the economy.
Mr Hancock said the ‘clarity of messaging’ had a ‘direct impact on how many people obey’ social distancing rules.
As pressure grows, a think-tank warned today that Britain’s fiscal watchdog has ‘downplayed’ the crippling long-lasting effects on the economy.
The Adam Smith Institute accused the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) of underestimating the long-term hit from the lockdown and closure of a third of the economy.
It said the analysis released earlier this week did not factor in the risk of systemic economic decline if Britain’s lockdown is sustained.
The OBR predicted the economy could shrink by 35 per cent and unemployment rise by two million if the lockdown continues for three months followed by a partial lifting for three months – but its analysis did not assume any lasting economic consequences.
The institute warned the UK was falling behind other countries that already have reopening strategies and timelines in place, such as Germany, Italy, Norway, Austria, Spain, Denmark and the Czech Republic.
It said this was holding UK businesses back from being able to plan for recovery once lockdown restrictions are eased.
Matthew Lesh, head of research at the Adam Smith Institute and co-author of the report, said: ‘The limbo must come to an end.
‘The closure of one-third of the economy has been necessary to slow the spread and protect the health service – but it cannot last forever.
‘We need a route out of this mess: a strategy to protect from this virus while allowing life to progressively return to normal.
‘This will mean testing and tracing capabilities ramped up, maintaining physical distance in shared spaces, but allowing as many businesses as possible, as quickly as possible, to reopen their operations.’
Britain should consider prepping for a phased reopening and scaling back of state support for the economy, according to the free market think-tank.
One of the government’s own key experts warned yesterday that curbs cannot be eased until mass testing is in place.
Professor Neil Ferguson insisted schools and more shops should not be open until everyone with symptoms, and everyone they have come into contact with, can been screened. Even then, he warned there is no possibility of the country returning to ‘normal’ until a vaccine is produced.
The epidemiologist – who has been modelling the outbreak for the government – delivered a withering verdict on the performance of ministers, urging them to ‘accelerate action’. He suggested the organisation in Whitehall was not on the same scale as the effort on Brexit, despite the crisis being much bigger.
Discussing whether lockdown measures could be eased after another three weeks, Professor Ferguson told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘I think that will very much depend on quite how quickly case numbers go down, and that does require us to get on top of things like transmission rates in hospitals and care homes.
‘I think the other thing I would say is that it really requires a single-minded emphasis in Government and the health system on scaling up testing and putting in place the ability to track down cases in the community and contact-trace.
‘Because without that, our estimates show we have relatively little leeway; if we relax measures too much then we’ll see a resurgence of transmission.
‘What we really need is the ability to put something in their place. If we want to open schools, let people get back to work, then we need to keep transmission down in another manner.
‘And I should say, it’s not going to be going back to normal. We will have to maintain some form of social distancing, a significant level of social distancing, probably indefinitely until we have a vaccine available.
Asked whether the Government is moving towards having an exit strategy in place, Prof Ferguson said: ‘I’m not completely sure. I think there’s a lot of discussion. I would like to see action accelerated.
‘We need to put in place an infrastructure, a command and control structure, a novel organisation for this.
‘I’m reminded by the fact we had a Department for Brexit for Government – that was a major national emergency, as it were – and we’re faced with something which is, at the moment, even larger than Brexit and yet I don’t see quite the same evidence for that level of organisation.’
Prof Ferguson added: ‘There needs to be more co-ordination I think, yes. That may be going on, I don’t have unique insight, but I think it could be enhanced.’