The UK faces tough coronavirus curbs until 2021 amid claims Boris Johnson’s personal battle with the disease has made him ‘tentative’ about lifting lockdown.
Tories have suggested the PM is ‘frightened’ of taking chances with the deadly virus after his own close call, despite fears the economic havoc might prove even more damaging to public health.
The pressure is intensifying on ministers to plot a way out of the crisis, but divisions have emerged over whether to loosen the draconian social distancing measures earlier and trust that the NHS can cope.
The PM has intervened from his recuperation at Chequers to snuff out speculation about an imminent easing, with Downing Street making clear his priority is avoiding a ‘second peak’ in the outbreak.
There are reports Mr Johnson’s close circle has stopped using the phrase ‘exit strategy’ and instead wants to signal a ‘next phase’ of lockdown, with varying levels of restrictions set to continue for the rest of the year until the ourbreak dwindles altogether or a vaccine is found.
How members of the cabinet are currently split over the ending of the lockdown. Mr Johnson (top left) and Matt Hancock (bottom left) are classed as ‘doves’; Michael Gove, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak (right, top-to-bottom) as ‘hawks’; and Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab (top centre) is among those in the middle, with Gavin Williamson (centre) and Alok Sharma (centre bottom)
Amid calls from senior Conservative MPs for the government to agree and share a path forward, one such MP told The Times that fighting for his life in intensive care had changed the Prime Minister.
The MP said: ‘The Prime Minister is in a funny place, I think he’s quite frightened. His illness and the warning from the doctors has really hit him hard.
‘To find himself floored like this has really got into his head. He has become really tentative.’
Mr Johnson, who is recuperating at Chequers after being released from hospital a week ago, is categorised as being among the Cabinet ‘doves’, those who oppose lifting lockdown early.
Other doves, including Health Secretary Matt Hancock who also contracted coronavirus, are thought to be more cautious, and much like Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, they are concerned about a second wave of the virus overwhelming the country.
The ‘hawks’ on the other hand, consisting of Chancellor Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss, the Trade Secretary, and Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove, are thought to be concerned about the implications of a long-term shut down of the UK economy, and want to ease restrictions sooner.
Mr Johnson is particularly concerned a second wave could leave the country on its knees, both from a health and economic standpoint.
While Mr Hancock has been clear in press conferences throughout the crisis he wants the lockdown to continue to ease the burden on an under-pressure NHS.
It came after the UK yesterday announced 449 more coronavirus deaths – the fewest for a fortnight – taking Britain’s total death toll to 16,509.
The latest advice from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) is that the loosening of lockdown restrictions could not be done without increasing the transmission for each person infected – known as R.
A cabinet source told The Guardian: ‘The scientists are very clear, there’s no loosening of measures we can do that won’t bring the R back over 1.
‘There may be some small changes on their own that could do it, but the question is whether behaviours change in other ways and push the R above 1.
‘The second you have the R above 1 then you’re back to exponential growth.
‘We did have R of about three. And we’ve driven that down. But even a small increase in transmission could put you above 1.’
Other ministers, such as Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, Business Secretary Alok Sharma and Gavin Williamson, Education Secretary, are set in between the two camps, and are yet to be won over by either.
The figures released yesterday showed England declared 429 deaths and a further 20 were confirmed across Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. And 4,676 more people have tested positive for the virus, taking the total number of patients to 124,743.
Monday’s death toll is a fall on the 596 fatalities announced on Sunday, and half as many as the day before that (888).
It is the lowest number for a fortnight, since April 6 when 439 victims were confirmed.
Although the statistics are known to drop after a weekend, the sharp fall adds to evidence that the peak of the UK’s epidemic has blown over.
It came after leading expert at the University of Oxford has argued the peak was actually about a month ago, a week before lockdown started on March 23, and that the draconian measures people are now living with were unnecessary.
Professor Carl Heneghan claims data shows infection rates halved after the Government launched a public information campaign on March 16 urging people to wash their hands and keep two metres (6’6′) away from others.
He said ministers ‘lost sight’ of the evidence and rushed into a nationwide quarantine six days later after being instructed by scientific advisers who he claims have been ‘consistently wrong’ during the crisis.
Professor Heneghan hailed Sweden – which has not enforced a lockdown despite fierce criticism – for ‘holding its nerve’ and avoiding a ‘doomsday scenario’.
The country has recorded just 392 new patients and 40 deaths today, approximately 10 per cent of the UK’s figures. Britain’s diagnoses have not been announced yet.
In separate research, the Oxford professor said he estimates that the true death rate among people who catch the virus is between 0.1 and 0.36 per cent, considerably lower than the 13 per cent currently playing out in the UK.