On Sunday 26th April, Boris Johnson returned to Downing Street after three weeks spent recovering from the effects of Covid-19. The PM returns to an increasingly heated debate surrounding the easing of lockdown measures, as he prepares for a week of meetings that promise the voicing of radically opposing views.
The weekend papers reported on how a split within his own cabinet was placing Johnson under increasing pressure. On one side, Michael Gove and Chancellor Rishi Sunak are among those arguing for a swifter reopening, while Heath Secretary Matt Hancock and Chief Advisor Dominic Cummings want to further minimise the threat of the virus before easing lockdown measures.
There’s been a backlash since last week when Downing Street briefed that Mr Johnson would not be rushing to lift restrictions after his own life-threatening experience with the virus. Conservative donors and three cabinet ministers voiced concerns about damage to the economy and the strain on the public as the lockdown continues. Labour leader Keir Starmer added to the pressure on Mr Johnson, calling for the PM to discuss an exit strategy to the lockdown.
While some areas of construction and retail have returned to work this week with the government’s backing, strict protocols are in place for staff. As economic pressure mounts, more companies are looking at ways they can eventually return to the workplace. Department store John Lewis announced a blue print that would allow them to reopen some stores within three to six weeks if the government gives the go-ahead, while budget airlines Wizz Air and easyJet are reportedly taking bookings for May.
In his speech on Monday morning, Mr Johnson said he understood concerns from business-owners, but warned that ending the lockdown too soon could lead to a second spike in cases and restrictions being reintroduced. Speaking outside No 10 for the first time since recovering from the virus, Mr Johnson said “We are now beginning to turn the tide on the disease. I ask you to contain your impatience.”
The PM went on to say that there were “real signs now that we are passing through the peak” – including fewer hospital admissions and fewer Covid-19 patients in intensive care. However, he also warned that this was the moment of “maximum risk” in the coronavirus outbreak, with the latest official figures bringing the total number of deaths in UK hospitals to 20,732, after a further 413 were announced on Sunday.
Ministers are required by law to assess whether the rules are working every three weeks, with the next review due by 7th May. Once the UK is meeting the five tests for easing restrictions, the government will move onto the second phase. Currently, the biggest hurdles seem to be sufficient testing and PPE. Although testing capacity is increasing, particularly for frontline workers, there were only 29,058 tests carried out on Saturday, meaning that the government’s target of 100,000 tests per day may need moderating.
The fifth and final test for easing restrictions is “being confident that any adjustment will not risk a second peak,” and without a vaccine this maybe a tricky one to navigate. Last week the government launched a major test study that will look at how the virus spreads and levels of immunity in the general population. It’s hoped that antibodies testing will aid the development of a vaccine, and with two human vaccine trials already underway at Oxford University and Imperial College, this looks hopeful.
The PM urged the country to hold faith with the lockdown for a while longer, saying that the UK has “so far collectively shielded our NHS” and “flattened the peak”. However, he could not yet say when or which restrictions would be lifted to ease lockdown. He warned that a second peak, as seen in both Hong Kong and Singapore, could have disastrous implications. A Downing Street spokesman said there could be more on how the government will judge the country’s ability to “move forward” by the end of the week.
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