U.K. Not Ready to Ease Lockdown as Daily Death Toll Reaches 980

Thomas Penny

(Bloomberg) --

The U.K. does not yet have the evidence it needs to ease restrictions on movement imposed to slow the spread of coronavirus, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said, as officials reported 980 deaths in a single day.

As Prime Minister Boris Johnson begins his recovery in hospital, officials are working on a strategy to exit lockdown measures but the outbreak has not yet reached the point at which curbs can be removed. The government’s emergency committee will review the restrictions next week.

Boris Johnson Kept on Working, But Then the Virus Took Over

“The information that we do have so far shows that we’re not there yet,” Hancock said at a televised briefing when asked about the government’s data on the outbreak. “The most important message is to stay at home, because that’s what saves lives.”

While Johnson’s medical and scientific advisers warned the lockdown may last for weeks or even months, pressure is building on ministers to reveal their plan for easing restrictions once the U.K. is judged to be past the peak of the outbreak.

The economic and social cost of keeping people indoors is becoming more evident, including a rise in cases of domestic abuse, missed treatments for life-threatening illnesses, and beleaguered retailers warning they are on the brink of collapse in spite of government offers of support.

‘Huge Problems’

Hancock said he is “very alive to” the effect of the lockdown on people’s lives and said he’s working with Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak on the issue.

“We do not yet have an established estimate of the impact of the huge problems in the economy that have been caused and the impact on the health of the nation, but it’s a piece of work I’m working on jointly with the chancellor,” Hancock said. “To make sure that when we make the big policy decisions -- especially around social-distancing -- we take into account the entire impact on the health and wellbeing of everyone in the country.”

With good weather forecast for much of the long holiday weekend, ministers are anxious to avoid scenes of people gathering in groups in parks, seaside resorts and beauty spots. The government rolled out an advertising campaign on social media and in print urging Britons to stay home, protect the National Health Service and save lives over the Easter break.

The death toll from the virus rose by a further 980 -- the highest daily total so far -- to bring the total to 8,958 in the latest data published Friday.

Unprotected

Hancock announced a plan to improve the provision of protective equipment to health service and social care staff to avoid them catching the virus. Supply chains have been stepped up and domestic manufacturers, including Burberry, have switched their facilities to producing protective garments, he said.

The government has faced criticism amid reports of frontline staff working without equipment including masks and gowns, and the British Medical Association said this week more than two-thirds of doctors have said they don’t feel safely protected where they work.

Hancock risked further anger from health workers when he said the use of personal protective equipment, known as PPE, should be limited to those who really need it.

“Everyone should use the equipment they clinically need in line with the guidelines, no more, no less,” he said. “We need everyone to treat PPE like the precious resource that it is.”

Lockdown

When the U.K. imposed sweeping restrictions on movement on March 23, Johnson said the measures would be reviewed in three weeks -- a deadline that falls on Monday. The lockdown has brought the economy to a near halt and triggered a surge in the number of people claiming welfare payments for the first time.

But it will be “several more weeks” before scientists will be able to draw conclusions about the rate of decline in cases and recommend any lifting of measures, Neil Ferguson, an epidemiologist who advises the government, told BBC Radio 4 on Friday. That’s despite “preliminary evidence” the restrictions are working better than anticipated, he said.

The government and its scientific advisers are working on an exit strategy as a top priority, according to Ferguson, and will likely consider age and geography in a staggered lifting of restrictions. He also called for widespread testing to identify cases and track transmissions.

“We clearly don’t want these measures to continue any longer than is absolutely necessary, the economic costs, social costs, personal and health costs are huge,” he said. “But we do want to find a set of policies which maintains suppression” of the virus.

Following a call late Thursday with opposition parties described by Johnson’s office as “constructive,” new Labour Party leader Keir Starmer called on the government to publish its strategy for exiting the lockdown.

Yet the government faces making a critical choice -- which risks triggering a second wave of infections if restrictions are lifted too early, or paralyzing the economy if left too late -- without Johnson, at least in the short term.

When Johnson, who is now able to take short walks in the hospital, returns to work will be “on the advice of his medical team,” his spokesman James Slack said. The premier’s recovery “is at an early stage,” he told reporters on a conference call.

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