Matt Hancock refuses to set out how UK government will ease coronavirus lockdown

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Nicola Sturgeon’s plan to get out of lockdown

The Scottish First Minister today set out some of the restrictions which could soon be lifted or modified north of the border.

They include: 

Businesses: Certain businesses could be allowed to reopen but only if they can guarantee that social distancing will be adhered to. 

Schools: Ms Sturgeon said reopening schools will be considered but she warned it could require classrooms to be redesigned to make sure pupils are kept at least two metres apart. She also suggested it may mean not all children attending at the same time.

Leaving the house: Ms Sturgeon suggested limited outdoor activities could be restarted but indoor ones would likely have to wait. 

Geographical differences: Different restrictions in different areas could be lifted at different times depending on the spread of the disease but a consistent approach is preferable.  

Large gatherings: Gigs and sporting events are ‘likely to be off for some months to come’.

Shielding: Greater protections for the vulnerable ‘almost certainly be required for the foreseeable future’.    

Health Secretary Matt Hancock today refused to bow to growing political pressure to set out how the UK government will ease the coronavirus lockdown. 

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon earlier published her own blueprint for how to lift the restrictions and there is growing Tory fury over Downing Street continuing to keep its strategy secret.

But Mr Hancock told the daily Number 10 coronavirus press conference that the government’s tests for lifting the draconian curbs were yet to be met. 

He said one of the reasons why the UK has been able to slow the spread of the killer disease is the ‘clarity on that message’ of the need to flatten the curve and for people to stay at home. 

He said there is still an ‘awful lot of work that still needs to be done’ before the government can deviate from that message and start talking about easing measures.

His comments are likely to further inflame tensions with Conservative backbenchers and are in stark contrast to the position adopted by Ms Sturgeon as she said there needed to be a ‘grown up’ discussion about how to get out of lockdown.

Ms Sturgeon had used a lunchtime briefing to signal she is willing to ease coronavirus restrictions in Scotland independently of the UK government as Northern Ireland also suggested it could follow suit.

The Scottish First Minister said there must be a ‘better balance’ between tackling the disease and protecting the economy as she set out a number of potential restrictions which could soon be loosened. 

They included allowing certain businesses to reopen if they can guarantee social distancing and looking at whether schools could also return, potentially with redesigned classrooms to keep children at least two metres away from each other.

However, she said large gatherings are unlikely to be allowed ‘for some months to come’ while the shielding of the vulnerable will also have to continue for the foreseeable future. She also insisted any easing of restrictions is not yet imminent.

Overnight Arlene Foster suggested Northern Ireland could emerge from coronavirus restrictions at a faster pace than other parts of the UK. 

Northern Ireland’s First Minister said lockdown measures will be eased when certain scientific and public health criteria – such as the rate of infection and death rate – are met and not against set timelines or dates.  

Many of the powers relating to the current lockdown are devolved which means Scotland and Northern Ireland could in theory opt to do their own thing, potentially leaving England and Wales behind. 

So far the four Home Nations have been broadly on the same page in terms of action taken during the crisis and any decision to split from that way of working would have major political and social ramifications.  

Matt Hancock today refused to bow to growing pressure for the UK government to set out how it intends to ease the coronavirus lockdown

Matt Hancock today refused to bow to growing pressure for the UK government to set out how it intends to ease the coronavirus lockdown

Nicola Sturgeon today signalled she is prepared to ease Scotland's coronavirus lockdown independently of the UK government

Nicola Sturgeon today signalled she is prepared to ease Scotland’s coronavirus lockdown independently of the UK government

Matt Hancock extends coronavirus testing to all essential workers

Essential workers and their families will all be offered coronavirus tests from tomorrow as part of a step change in the Government’s coronavirus battle plan.  

Health Secretary Matt Hancock today announced that swab testing will be expanded from just health workers into wider society as part of plans to ‘test, track and trace’.

Authorities will push forward with more testing to work out the true size of the UK’s outbreak, as well as tracing contacts of infected patients to prevent surges in cases. 

The same key workers whose children have been allowed to remain at school will now be able to order COVID-19 tests online or through their employers.

These include teachers and social workers, supermarket staff and lorry drivers, public transport staff, bankers, postal workers, bin collectors and utility workers, for example. Members of their families will also be eligible for the tests. 

Britain has 7.1million of these essential workers, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, and 42 per cent of them have at least one child under the age of 16. 

Mr Hancock said in this afternoon’s briefing ‘I want to make it as easy as possible for people to get a test’ and said there are 31 places around the UK that can do them. People will be able to book the swabs online and will receive results by text.

 

There have been signs in recent days that some people are beginning to tire of the curbs on daily life with photographs showing more people on the UK’s roads, using London’s underground and in the nation’s parks.

Dominic Raab said last night it will be weeks before ministers even ‘think about’ putting forward a comprehensive exit strategy. 

Mr Hancock stuck to that sentiment this evening as he was asked whether Ms Sturgeon and Tory MPs were wrong to talk about how to get out of lockdown. 

He said: ‘I understand the thirst for knowledge but the tests that we have set out which are the basis from which others for instance the Scottish government have then developed their plans, those tests are the critical tests for when changes can be made.

‘And of course monitoring what is happening and making sure that we move at the right time is absolutely critical.

‘But the message remains to your viewers and to everybody across the country the message remains the same that people need to stay at home to protect the NHS and save lives.

‘The reason that we have clarity on that message is it has succeeded in bringing down and flattening the curve.

‘But we are not through that yet and there is an awful lot of work that still needs to be done and we are absolutely determined to avoid a second peak.

‘We have set out… the five tests for when we should move. We haven’t met them yet and therefore we must keep the social distancing measures in place.’

The government’s five tests are: ensuring the NHS can provide enough critical care, a sustained and consistent fall in the daily death rate, manageable infection levels, increased testing capacity and no risk of a second peak.

Mr Hancock said a ‘test, track and trace’ programme would be key to the government’s battle against coronavirus in the future.

But he said there is no ‘automatic link’ between the scheme being up and running and the government easing lockdown.

‘There is no automatic link between the scale of test, track and trace and any changes to the social distancing measures,’ he said. 

Nicola Sturgeon’s plan to get out of lockdown

The Scottish First Minister today set out some of the restrictions which could soon be lifted or modified north of the border.

They include: 

Businesses: Certain businesses could be allowed to reopen but only if they can guarantee that social distancing will be adhered to. 

Schools: Ms Sturgeon said reopening schools will be considered but she warned it could require classrooms to be redesigned to make sure pupils are kept at least two metres apart. She also suggested it may mean not all children attending at the same time.

Leaving the house: Ms Sturgeon suggested limited outdoor activities could be restarted but indoor ones would likely have to wait. 

Geographical differences: Different restrictions in different areas could be lifted at different times depending on the spread of the disease but a consistent approach is preferable.  

Large gatherings: Gigs and sporting events are ‘likely to be off for some months to come’.

Shielding: Greater protections for the vulnerable ‘almost certainly be required for the foreseeable future’.    

Ms Sturgeon has repeatedly gazumped Number 10 during the coronavirus crisis as she has moved on key issues before ministers in London. 

Previous examples include announcing a ban on large social gatherings, closing schools and saying that the original three week lockdown would be extended. 

The end-of-lockdown strategy document published by the Scottish government today makes clear that in the future some changes to everyday life will remain in place. 

Ms Sturgeon told a briefing at lunchtime that the Scottish government ‘wants to ease restrictions, of course we do’ as she warned that any easing could ultimately have to be reversed. 

But signalling she is willing to take Scotland in a different direction to the rest of the UK, she said: ‘While today’s paper is still quite high level it is the start of a process. It sets out the objectives and the principles that will guide us, the different factors we will need to take into account, the framework in which we will take decisions and the preparations we need to make now.

‘In the days and the weeks ahead, evidence, data and modelling will allow us to take firmer decisions. As that happens this paper will evolve into a detailed plan with metrics, actions, milestones and measurements attached to it.’

Ms Sturgeon stressed that suppressing the spread of coronavirus will always be the Scottish government’s main aim. 

But she added: ‘This virus causes real harm and we see that everyday in the statistics that we report, especially in the numbers of people who have died.

‘But the lockdown measures we are taking to contain the virus are also doing damage. They are doing harm to the economy, to living standards, to children’s education, to other aspects of our physical health and to mental health and wellbeing.

‘The toll of all of that may also in time be measured in poorer health outcomes and lives lost so we must try to find a better balance than the one we have right now.’

Ms Sturgeon said that while the data suggested that the spread of the virus is now subsiding, more time is needed to assess the numbers on key metrics like new cases, ICU admissions and total death toll.

The SNP leader also said more surveillance would be needed in the coming weeks to further improve that data and that it would be ‘only when we are sure the virus is under control’ that restrictions could be lifted. 

Ms Sturgeon said the nature of the disease means that lifting restrictions too soon or too much could prompt coronavirus to ‘run rampant again’. 

Government set to update guidance on face masks

Britons are set to be told it will not be compulsory to wear masks to prevent the spread of coronavirus – but they will be advised to wear DIY face coverings at work, in shops and on public transport.

The government’s top scientific experts have been reviewing key evidence and ministers are expected to issue new guidance to the public by the weekend. 

The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) is believed to be backing advice on wearing a cloth face mask – such as a homemade mask or scarf – in areas where social distancing is not possible.

This will mean asking people to cover their nose and mouth when they go to the shops and travel on trains, but won’t apply to being in parks and quiet, residential streets.

The experts are set to say it should not be compulsory and that the wearing of masks should be left up to the individual.  

As a result, she said a ‘return to normal as we knew it is not on the cards in the near future’. 

But the plan will result in a ‘new normal’ which will see people ‘living alongside this virus but in a form that keeps it under control’. 

She said social distancing will be a ‘fact of life for a long time to come’ and possibly beyond the end of this year.

Any changes made will be ‘gradual’ and ‘incremental’ and likely ‘quite small to start with’. 

Some of the options which will be considered by the Scottish government will include the possibility of reopening some businesses if they can guarantee social distancing and a limited restarting of some outdoor activities with indoor having to come later. 

Ms Sturgeon also said reopening of schools will be examined but warned that could require classrooms to be redesigned to keep children at least two metres away from each other as she also raised the prospect of not all pupils attending classes at the same time. 

The SNP leader said she was open to geographical differences in easing restrictions but insisted her preference is for a consistent approach across the country to avoid confusion. 

However, she was adamant that large gatherings and events are unlikely to be allowed to resume ‘for some months to come’ while shielding of the vulnerable will also be required ‘for the foreseeable future’. 

Senior figures at Holyrood are insistent the paper has been designed to start a discussion on what measures will need to stay in effect. 

But the publication of the blueprint is unlikely to have been well received in Whitehall where ministers are adamant the focus must remain on slowing the spread of the virus, with Mr Raab saying yesterday the UK must not ‘take our eye off the ball’. 

Asked if Ms Sturgeon’s remarks today meant that the joint four-nation approach to the pandemic was crumbling, the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman said: ‘There is no indication of that so far.’

He added: ‘As far as I am aware the Scottish government has stated they want to continue to operate in a four-nation UK framework and align any decision taken as far as possible.’

The impact of coronavirus has not been as severe in Northern Ireland as it has been in other parts of the UK with the region having recorded 250 deaths in the pandemic as of yesterday.

The latest Downing Street statistics show the number of people in hospital with coronavirus continues to fall in London and other parts of the country

The latest Downing Street statistics show the number of people in hospital with coronavirus continues to fall in London and other parts of the country

The number of coronavirus patients in critical care in hospitals across the UK has also been falling

The number of coronavirus patients in critical care in hospitals across the UK has also been falling 

The UK's coronavirus trajectory remains broadly the same as a number of other European countries, including Spain and France

The UK’s coronavirus trajectory remains broadly the same as a number of other European countries, including Spain and France 

There have been signs in recent days of people potentially growing tired with lockdown as more traffic has returned to the UK's roads. The M5 is pictured today near Bristol

There have been signs in recent days of people potentially growing tired with lockdown as more traffic has returned to the UK’s roads. The M5 is pictured today near Bristol 

Construction employees are pictured working on a building site this morning in Lewisham, South East London

Construction employees are pictured working on a building site this morning in Lewisham, South East London

Crowds of commuters board a Jubilee line train at Canning Town station on the London Underground this morning

Crowds of commuters board a Jubilee line train at Canning Town station on the London Underground this morning

Customers wait outside a B&Q store at Sutton In Ashfield in Nottinghamshire which has opened its doors this morning

Customers wait outside a B&Q store at Sutton In Ashfield in Nottinghamshire which has opened its doors this morning

Mrs Foster was asked whether the contrasting experiences meant Northern Ireland could move away from lockdown at a different pace to the rest of the UK.

‘It will be led by the criteria that will be set down and agreed by ourselves in the Northern Ireland Executive in conjunction with the our colleagues in the other parts of the UK,’ she told Cool FM.

‘And because of that you could well see different parts of the United Kingdom move in different time to other parts, because it will be criteria-led.’   

Health chiefs launch new bid to determine spread of coronavirus in Britain

Health chiefs have finally launched a mass coronavirus antibody testing study to trace how far the killer disease has already spread in Britain.

A thousand households will have their blood samples taken every month by a nurse or trained medic, the Department of Health last night announced.

Antibodies are substances made by the immune system in response to an infection and can be picked-up by a simple finger-prick blood test.

The announcement marks a step forward after months of the government dragging its feet on a programme which scientists say is essential to ending lockdown because it’s the only way of getting a true picture of the size of the outbreak.

Antibody testing, which has been picked up on much larger scale in other countries, forms a vital part of the government’s ‘five-pillar’ testing strategy – but officials have so far only managed 4,900 tests.

The UK government is yet to identify a mass produced antibody test which is sufficiently accurate to be rolled out nationwide. 

The new British sampling scheme is dwarfed by one being carried out in the Italian region of Lombardy, for example, where medics now plan to do 20,000 tests per day.  

British officials have also begun a separate scheme to carry out regular swab tests on 25,000 people, who will be tested around 15 times a year to see whether they have the disease, so the government can keep track of its spread.  

Senior backbenchers on the 1922 Committee of Conservative MPs met yesterday to discuss the government’s response to the current crisis. 

They said it is ‘silly’ for ministers not to be totally frank with the public about an exit plan given how well most of the population has stuck to social distancing measures. 

They stressed ‘there has got to be an economy to go back to’ as they sounded a warning which will be heard loud and clear in Downing Street. 

The committee’s treasurer, Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, then broke cover today as he suggested a comprehensive plan must be set out within the next month or many businesses ‘are actually likely to cease trading’. 

‘We have got to think about the number of businesses, particularly small businesses, that unless they get some form of indication when they might be able to get back into business that are actually likely to cease trading,’ he told the BBC.

‘Every business that ceases trading is a job or more than one lost.’ 

Former Tory chancellor George Osborne has urged the government adopt the same approach to openness as Ms Sturgeon. 

He tweeted the SNP leader had got it ‘right’ and it is ‘time to treat the public like adults’. 

Last night Mr Raab delivered a tough message to Britons wearying of the lockdown, warning that the UK is still ‘going through the peak’ of coronavirus.

The First Secretary of State said it was not the time to ‘take our eye off the ball’ as he rejected claims the government is preparing to ease curbs in mid-May. 

Meanwhile, Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty suggested some form of restrictions will have to remain in place for the ‘next calendar year’. 

He said the only way to completely get back to normal life is if a vaccine is developed which works or if drugs are developed which can stop so many people dying from the disease. 

He had told the daily Downing Street press conference: ‘Until we have those – and the probability of having those any time in the next calendar year are incredibly small – we should be realistic that we’re going to have to rely on other social measures, which of course are very socially disruptive as everyone is finding at the moment.’ 

The row over when the government will set out its plans detailing how lockdown will be eased came as Business Secretary Alok Sharma today revealed almost 400,000 businesses have made applications to the government’s coronavirus furlough scheme.

The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme only opened for applications on Monday this week but as of 4pm yesterday some 387,000 firms have applied for help.

Official statistics showed yesterday that the number of people in hospital with coronavirus continues to fall in many parts of the country

Official statistics showed yesterday that the number of people in hospital with coronavirus continues to fall in many parts of the country

Angela Merkel says some German states have eased lockdown too quickly

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said that some states have gone too far in easing coronavirus lockdowns and warned the country is still at the beginning of its outbreak, not the end.

Speaking to the German parliament this morning she told ministers that ‘we can’t return to life like it was before coronavirus’ and cautioned that the country will have to live with the virus for a long time.

‘We are in for the long haul,’ she said. ‘We must not lose energy before we reach the end.’ 

She added: ‘It would be a terrible shame if our hope punishes us.’ 

Those applications cover 2.8 million workers which means the Treasury is now facing a maximum monthly bill of up to £7 billion so far based on the fact the scheme pays up to £2,500 per worker.

Meanwhile, £2.8 billion has been handed out through a government loan scheme designed to keep small and medium sized companies afloat. 

But businesses are urging ministers to urgently speed up the application process in the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS) with industry groups labelling it ‘too complex and too lengthy’. 

More than 38,000 completed applications for loans have now been sent to lenders to assess. 

However, the number which have been approved so far is just 16,624 with the others still in the queue waiting to be processed.  

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