Boris Johnson has told senior colleagues that any “modification” of the UK’s lockdown measures must not risk another damaging peak in coronavirus cases, amid growing cabinet tensions over when to lift restrictions.
The prime minister, who is recovering from Covid-19, has warned that a second surge in the virus “will do the most damage to health and the most damage to the economy”, government officials said.
Mr Johnson’s cautious approach comes amid growing concern in the Treasury that a long lockdown could cause a “U-shaped” recession, with serious prolonged economic damage.
The Office for Budget Responsibility this month modelled for a scenario with a “V-shaped” recession, with a 35 per cent drop in gross domestic product followed by a sharp rebound.
Mr Johnson relayed his cautious message to senior colleagues during a two-hour meeting on Friday. The meeting, first reported by The Times, took place at Chequers; some officials joined via a video link.
The prime minister is expected to be fully involved in the first week of May when the government decides its approach to easing the lockdown, but any relaxations are expected to be gradual.
Michael Gove, cabinet office minister, and Rishi Sunak, chancellor, are among those arguing for a swifter economic reopening, arguing that a certain level of transmission in society could be tolerated if the vulnerable are shielded and the NHS is able to cope.
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But Matt Hancock, health secretary, wants to crush the virus before the lockdown is eased, arguing that earlier lifting of restrictions is too risky and could lead to a second peak.
In a further sign of the tensions, senior government officials say Dominic Cummings, Mr Johnson’s chief adviser, is backing Mr Hancock, while cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill is taking a more “hawkish” line.
Mr Sunak has ordered the Treasury to model for a possible “U-shaped” economic recovery from the virus, reflecting fears that there will not be a swift rebound. Whitehall officials admit that this is a “reasonable” scenario.
The chancellor is concerned that unemployed workers will not quickly find new jobs, while his allies are also worried that some people will not immediately return to work, even if restrictions are lifted.
Oliver Dowden, cabinet office minister, said the government would base its actions “on the facts and clinical evidence”. He said Mr Johnson had previously talked about “turning the tide” on the virus in June.
Meanwhile Tony Blair, former prime minister, has called on Boris Johnson to recruit business leaders to help lead the country back to a “new normal”, saying the “economic and health damage of a prolonged lockdown is vast”.
Mr Blair said government had to be reinvented to deal with the challenge of leaving the lockdown, adding that planning needed to be put in place for when the virus had been suppressed.
He cited the appointment of Paul Deighton, former head of the London Olympics delivery body, to run the government’s procurement programme for protective personal equipment as a good precedent.
“The system is working flat out,” Mr Blair told the BBC’s Today programme. “I’ve never come across anything more complicated and difficult than this in politics. But it’s precisely because of its complexity that you need to make sure each of these areas is dealt with in the best way possible.
A paper published by Mr Blair on Monday said Mr Johnson should set up separate command structures to deal with issues such as the procurement of tracking technology to stop the spread of the virus and a reopening of international travel.
Mr Dowden, cabinet office minister, said he was “hopeful” that a flight from Turkey carrying 84 tons of PPE including 400,000 gowns would arrive on Monday afternoon; it was due to arrive on Sunday.