Ministers are to extend Britain’s lockdown into May, with Boris Johnson’s allies warning that the country will have to get used to a “new normal” for months to come as it gradually edges out of the coronavirus crisis.
Cabinet ministers said they expected the lockdown to be formally extended for another three weeks on Thursday, against a backdrop of predictions that the crisis could leave 2m unemployed, cause a 35 per cent slump in gross domestic product and lead to more than £200bn of extra government borrowing.
In spite of the dire scenario from the Office for Budget Responsibility, ministers are resigned to the fact that lockdown restrictions — introduced on March 23 — will have to remain in place and that even talking about an exit strategy will confuse and infuriate the public.
As UK coronavirus deaths in hospitals rose by a further 778 in Department of Health and Social Care figures released on Tuesday, one minister said: “The expectation is it will be for another three weeks of this, followed by another review. We will have more data then — we’ll also have more time to work out how we start to unwind the lockdown.”
Chancellor Rishi Sunak attempted to play down suggestions that he was in a group of cabinet “hawks” pushing for an early relaxation of the lockdown.
Speaking in Downing Street, Mr Sunak said that unless the virus was suppressed there would not be the economic “bounce back” that he craves. “It is not a case of choosing between the economy and public health,” he said. “Common sense tells us that doing so would be self-defeating,”
Although public talk of an exit strategy is banned by Number 10, Mr Johnson’s allies said there will not be a single moment when the lockdown is lifted but a gradual easing of restrictions — starting with certain sectors — as the country gingerly feels its way towards a “new normal”.
One cabinet minister said there was little appetite for a phased lifting of the lockdown starting with a limited number of geographic regions, arguing that it would send out a “confusing” message as well as creating incentives for people to travel across the UK in search of work or an open pub.
The idea of lifting restrictions first for younger people — who are less vulnerable to the virus — is also viewed warily in the cabinet although the concept has supporters in the Treasury and has not been dismissed out of hand by Number 10.
However, Britain is most likely to follow other European countries in adopting sector-by-sector relaxation of the rules. “You could start with an industry like construction and finish up with nightclubs,” said one minister.
There is some concern among cabinet ministers that the government’s “stay home” message has proved so effective that certain industries have been crippled when they could still be operational — an issue which business secretary Alok Sharma has tried to address.
Last week Mr Sharma discreetly sent out advice to companies on how they could continue to operate where home working was not possible, making clear that while social distancing was desirable it was not essential. Handwashing was offered as one alternative.
“Businesses should consider shift working or the staggering of processes which would enable staff to continue to operate both effectively and where possible at a safe distance (more than 2 metres) from one another,” said the Department for Business.
The OBR scenario published on Tuesday suggests a 70 per cent fall in output in the construction sector in the second quarter of 2020, with a 55 per cent drop in manufacturing and 50 per cent in wholesale, retail and motor trades.
These sectors are among the ones being earmarked by ministers for an early relaxation of the lockdown rules, with speculation that an easing could begin at some point after the bank holiday on May 8, the 75th anniversary of VE Day.
The reopening of schools is a hotly contested issue. Researchers at University College London suggest it could be done with little risk to public health, but some Downing Street insiders are sceptical. “Show me how you socially distance a load of seven-year-olds,” said one ally of Mr Johnson.
The prime minister, recuperating from his coronavirus illness at Chequers, his country residence, is not currently working. But he might be back at his desk by the time the big decision on easing the lockdown has to be taken. “The aim will be to make the restrictions more efficient,” added Mr Johnson’s ally.
The one surprise for ministers is that although an economic storm is gathering, the decision on the lockdown this week is not being taken against a backdrop of a restive public, clamouring to be allowed out of their homes.
“In the early days people were worried that the public would get bored,” said one minister. “The behavioural scientists said there would be a maximum limit of people’s tolerance of a lockdown, but people have been very diligent and very supportive.”
Meanwhile, Labour leader Keir Starmer has urged the government to publish its exit strategy this week, warning that the “silent pressures on families and communities across the country cannot be underestimated”.
In a letter to the foreign secretary Dominic Raab, who is deputising for Mr Mr Johnson, Sir Keir said Labour would support the government’s decision to extend the lockdown, but called for the release of a strategy to ease restrictions when possible.
But one government official said: “Talk of an exit strategy before we have reached the peak [of virus related deaths] risks confusing the critical message that people need to stay at home in order to protect our NHS and save lives.”