Coronavirus: Government urges ‘caution’ on lockdown easing

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Media captionAny lockdown changes will be “modest”, says Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab

The PM says the government will proceed with “maximum caution” when considering easing coronavirus restrictions.

Boris Johnson is due to announce plans for England’s lockdown on Sunday, but ministers have insisted short term changes to measures will be “modest”.

At the government’s daily briefing, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab described media reports on easing restrictions as “not a reliable guide”.

He added that changes may vary between the different nations.

It comes after Scotland’s lockdown was formally extended, and the Welsh government warned media reports speculating how Mr Johnson might ease lockdown measures risked sending “mixed messages” to the public.

Some newspapers suggested the rules on exercise could be relaxed and more people encouraged to return to work.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have the power to diverge from what the government at Westminster decides on the lockdown – and could lift restrictions at a different rate.

The prime minister has told leaders of the devolved nations that he is committed to a UK-wide approach to tackling coronavirus “even if different parts of the UK begin to move at slightly different speeds”, Downing Street said.

“Those decisions will be made based on the science for each nation,” a No 10 spokesman added.

The latest figures show the total number of people who have died in hospitals, care homes and the wider community in the UK after testing positive for coronavirus is 30,615 – a daily increase of 539.

The UK provided some 86,583 tests in 24 hours to 09:00 BST on Thursday – meaning the government missed its 100,000-per-day target for the fifth consecutive day.

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Image caption There were reports restrictions on outdoor exercise could be lifted in England from Monday

Addressing the possible easing of restrictions at the briefing, Mr Raab said: “Any changes in the short term will be modest, small, incremental and very carefully monitored.”

He stressed that the existing rules would still apply over the bank holiday weekend and urged people to “continue to follow the guidance”.

Facing pressure over media reports suggesting the lockdown would be eased, the foreign secretary said that reports were “not a reliable guide” to future policy decisions.

He added that future decisions would be based on the reproduction number – known as the R level – which represents the average number of people that one infected person will pass the virus on to.

“If we find in the future the R level goes back up or that people aren’t following the rules, we must have the ability then to put back measures in place,” he said.

He said that future decisions would be based on the R number, adding: “If we find in the future the R level goes back up or that people aren’t following the rules, we must have the ability then to put back measures in place.”

Sir Ian Diamond, the chief statistician for the Office for National Statistics, said the current R number was below one.

However, he said R had increased since the last estimates due to the rise in virus transmission in care homes.

An R number greater than one will result in exponential growth in the number of cases. But if the number stays lower than one, the disease will eventually peter out as not enough new people are being infected to sustain the outbreak.

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Media captionWhat is the R number and what does it mean?

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the government was “right to extend the lockdown” until the infection rate was under control, saying that “the health and safety of the nation needs to come first”.

He added that “there needs to be absolute clarity that we must follow the rules”.

With much speculation about Sunday’s announcement, the government seems keen to manage expectations.

Dominic Raab’s emphasis was on gradual steps; he spoke of this being a delicate and dangerous moment with the virus remaining deadly.

He said the prime minister would set out a road map of how the country might come out of this lockdown, but the government doesn’t want to release the handbrake and see the car race away just yet.

Today’s press conference seemed designed to both offer a glimmer of hope about how the country might move on from lockdown, and to shroud it in caution – with emphasis that current measures still remain in place.

Whether that message comes across as clear, or confused, is the key question at what could be a crucial moment in managing this pandemic.

By law, the government must review the restrictions every three weeks, and Thursday marks the latest deadline.

Although the lockdown – first announced on 23 March – will largely stay in place, the “stay at home” message is expected to be scrapped and it is likely more outdoor activities will be permitted. The prime minister will make his address at 19:00 BST on Sunday.

Mr Johnson told a meeting of his cabinet earlier that the UK government would not do anything that risked a second peak, and would be guided “at every step” by the science and data.

The prime minister has told opposition leaders he will deliver a statement in the House of Commons on the government’s next steps on Monday.

‘Catastrophic’

In Scotland, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon warned it could be “catastrophic” to drop the stay at home message as she announced that the nation’s lockdown was to be extended.

She said any easing of restrictions would be “very risky” at this stage, but said the Scottish government may be prepared to allow people to spend more time outdoors.

Scotland has already set out a number of options for lifting the lockdown, but Ms Sturgeon said she would “not be pressurised” into easing measures prematurely.

She said her preference would be for all four nations to make changes together at the same pace but “we can decide in an entirely grown-up way if we are at different stages and want to go different ways”.

Ms Sturgeon added that media reports about the prime minister planning to ease the lockdown had not been discussed with the Scottish government.

Meanwhile, a Welsh government spokesman said it was “crucially important” people in Wales were “informed clearly and accurately” about any changes to the current restrictions.

“Some of the reporting in today’s newspapers is confusing and risks sending mixed messages to people across the UK,” he added.

The Northern Ireland Executive met on Thursday to discuss how and when to relax lockdown restrictions. First Minister Arlene Foster previously suggested Northern Ireland’s restrictions could be lifted at a different pace from the rest of the UK’s.

It comes as the UK became the first country in Europe to record more than 30,000 people dying with coronavirus. The UK now has the second-highest number of recorded coronavirus deaths in the world, behind the United States.

However, ministers have argued it is too early to make full international comparisons.

In other developments:


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