Dominic Raab has insisted that “we cannot stay in lockdown forever” as senior Cabinet sources said that growing splits among scientists meant ministers needed to “exercise a greater degree of judgment”.
After a number of the Government’s scientific advisers publicly warned against the planned easing of lockdown measures this week, the Foreign Secretary acknowledged the UK was at a “precarious moment” but defended the decision to press ahead.
With primary schools and outdoor retailers reopening on Monday and groups of six people permitted to meet outdoors, several members of the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage) believe the number of covid-19 infections is still too high to proceed.
However, Mr Raab pointed out that there were disagreements among the Government’s scientific advisers, adding that it would be “totally surprising” if there was “unanimity” within the group.
He also acknowledged that while Sage provided advice to ministers, it was right that “as elected politicians we have to make the final judgment call.”
“Obviously, this is a sensitive moment but we can’t just stay in lockdown forever, we’ve got to transition and the more we transition in careful steps, the more I think we’ll build up confidence in the approach we’re taking,” he told Sky News.
“Our overriding priority is to protect life but we also know that we’ve got to protect livelihoods, jobs, the economy because that props up all of our crucial public services and so the steps that we’re taking is not some binary trade-off.”
Mr Raab added that if easing the lockdown led to “upticks” in infection rates in certain parts of the country, ministers would now “target specific settings or particular regions” rather than reimposing restrictions nationwide.
He also stressed that ministers had to be “cautious” during the transition, adding that there was a fine line between people being “stuck in the old rules or going too fast.”
His comments were echoed on Sunday evening by Dr Jenny Harries, the deputy chief medical officer, who added that while the public should “very carefully and sensibly pick up those easements” they should not “overdo it.”
Speaking at the daily Downing Street briefing, Dr Harries added: "I think it's really important that people just try to use these measures sensibly for their own benefit but don't risk transmission to other people."
However, The Daily Telegraph understands that a group of senior ministers are privately ratcheting up pressure within Cabinet for decision-making to be more focussed on the reopening of the economy.
According to Whitehall insiders, a quartet of senior ministers - Chancellor Rishi Sunak, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick and Business Secretary Alok Sharma - are leading the calls and are working in close “coordination”.
The group are also said to have discussed whether the two-metre social distancing rule could be reduced as part of efforts to reopen certain sectors faster.
“Certainly the four are very aligned in seeking to reopen the economy as quickly as can be done, while obviously ensuring that it is done safely and avoiding the second peak,” a source said. “There’s a high degree of alignment between each.”
One Cabinet minister told The Daily Telegraph that differing scientific opinions on lifting lockdown measures also meant that ministers needed to exercise a “greater degree of judgment”, balancing the health risks against the wider consequences for society and business.
“Decisions are still based on the science...but it is also true that it’s very difficult to measure the impact of each individual easing of the lockdown,” they added.
“With each of these measures, such as schools, which carry significant other social benefits, you do have to balance the risk, which only really politicians can make.
Their comments were echoed by a senior Government source, who added: “Back in March everyone was worried about public health and people dying, now economic concerns are coming to the fore.
“Now people are seeing other countries starting to come out of lockdown, it’s becoming a lot harder politically to be keeping people locked up.”
Their comments highlight growing tensions between ministers and some of their scientific advisers, who this weekend claimed that restrictions in England are being eased too quickly.
They include Sage members Sir Jeremy Farrar, Professor John Edmunds and Professor Peter Horby, who argued that ministers were taking risks by pressing ahead with the easing from Monday.
Their concerns were on Sunday echoed by Professor Peter Openshaw, who sits on the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), who suggested that lockdown measures should be repealed at different times across the country.
Speaking to the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, Prof Openshaw said that while lifting measures in areas with lower levels of infection, such as London, may be “perfectly okay”, in parts of the north of England there were “still a very large number of cases.”
“At the moment, we still have quite a large number of cases out there in the community and I think unlocking too fast carries a great risk that all the good work that’s been put in by everyone, to try to reduce transmission may be lost," he added.