Britain is on Thursday expected to extend its coronavirus lockdown until early May, but there were rising hopes that the country is approaching the peak of the crisis and that a gradual easing of restrictions will begin next month.
Health secretary Matt Hancock on Wednesday insisted that it was “too early to make changes” to the current regime and that it was vital that people stayed at home as the National Health Service continued to cope with the outbreak.
But Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, confirmed that the graph of new Covid-19 infections was flattening out, adding: “Our view is that we are probably reaching the peak overall.”
The daily toll of virus-related deaths stood at 761 across the UK and Prof Whitty said it was possible that the number could spike again. With the total number of deaths currently at 12,868, he added that it was not possible to “safely say that we are past the peak”.
However Mr Hancock was visibly relieved to announce that the NHS had been able to cope with the outbreak so far and ministers will meet on Thursday to consider evidence that the lockdown that started on March 23 has been broadly successful.
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Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland’s first minister, announced on Wednesday that the lockdown in the region would continue for a further three weeks and that the restrictions would be reviewed again at that point.
Given that the UK’s four constituent nations have moved at the same speed throughout the crisis, government officials confirmed the whole country was heading for a further three weeks of lockdown. Another review would have to be conducted by law by May 7.
Foreign secretary Dominic Raab will convene an emergency committee of ministers on Thursday that will formally extend the lockdown. It will also be attended by the leaders of the UK’s devolved administrations.
Mr Raab is standing in for Boris Johnson, who continues to recover from coronavirus at his Chequers country retreat and is not currently carrying out any government work.
Ministers hope the prime minister will be back at work by May 7 to take the decision on when to start easing the lockdown, which has inflicted massive economic damage on the country and which could push unemployment up to 2m, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility.
Mr Johnson’s allies are sympathetic to the idea of announcing some easing of restrictions ahead of the bank holiday on May 8, the 75th anniversary of VE Day, although Downing Street said the prime minister would continue to be guided by scientific advice.
Former chancellor Sajid Javid told the BBC: “We should be trying to phase out this lockdown as soon as we possibly can, based on that scientific and medical advice. That will make the biggest immediate difference to the economic pain the country is going through.”
Labour leader Keir Starmer has urged the government to publish its exit strategy from the lockdown this week, but ministers are determined to keep the country focused on staying at home. Sir Keir warned that the “silent pressures on families and communities across the country cannot be underestimated”.
When the exit strategy is finally unveiled, it is likely that certain sectors of the economy will lead the way out of the crisis, while ministers will have to decide whether to allow schools to reopen.
David King, the government’s former chief scientific adviser, said Britain’s lockdown on March 23 came “too late” and that “every day’s delay” had cost lives.
He told LBC: “Why we didn’t respond so much sooner once this epidemic broke out in China, I simply don’t know.” Downing Street insisted the government took “the right decisions at the right time”.