Congress presses Trump administration to fix small business relief program

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. lawmakers have urged the Treasury Department to clarify and streamline the government’s small business loan program, after hearing gripes from local businesses.

Several Democrats sent letters to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Small Business Administrator Jovita Carranza on Tuesday, saying businesses and banks were struggling with the program and needed help.

They said some businesses were struggling to understand whether they qualified for the loans, and others found themselves effectively frozen out as banks prioritized applications from existing clients.

“I am concerned that you have been unable to quickly set up the PPP so that these businesses can receive this funding in an expedient and fair manner,” Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey said in a letter sent Monday.

“Small businesses…are at grave risk of imminent collapse, and you must act quickly to ensure that they quickly get the help they need. Every lost day matters.”

The complaints from Congress come after a rocky first few days for the program, which has been beset by technical problems and paperwork confusion.

The rush to get the plan off the ground resulted in the government making last-minute changes to the program, which was still being tweaked as loans were processed. On Monday, the Treasury published another document aimed at answering frequent questions about the program.

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The program was intended to quickly distribute $350 billion in relief to small businesses as part of a $2.3 trillion economic relief package. It was launched just one week after that package became law, but the speed has left banks scrambling to process loan applications while borrowers rush to claim a piece of the first-come, first-serve assistance.

National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow said earlier on Tuesday that $50 billion across roughly 178,000 loans had already been authorized under the program. But many banks have yet to distribute those authorized funds, as they wait on a critical form from the SBA for borrowers to sign, according to industry officials.

Spokespeople for the Treasury Department and SBA did not respond to a request for comment.

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Coronavirus: Boris Johnson is ‘a really strong guy’ and will pull through, says friend

A friend of Boris Johnson who worked with him when he was mayor of London says the prime minister is a “really, really strong guy” and “far fitter than he looks”.

Will Walden, who was Mr Johnson’s director of communications at City Hall, said the prime minister would beat COVID-19.

Mr Johnson is in intensive care in hospital after his symptoms worsened on Monday.

Mr Walden said: “He will whip anybody’s backside on a tennis court, he runs regularly, he doesn’t smoke, he drinks moderately.

“So I think if anyone is in a good position both physically and mentally to fight off the disease then the prime minister is that person.”

Mr Walden said he had been in touch with Mr Johnson a few times in the last few weeks and added: “I had a brief exchange with him last week in which I was more concerned about him being in isolation and what he said back to me was, ‘Don’t worry, we’re going to beat it’.

“What he meant by that, which is typical of Boris, is we as a country will come together and beat this disease, rather than thinking about himself in regard to that – and that’s pretty typical of the man.”

Mr Walden told Sky News that Mr Johnson would be fighting to get better, but would be frustrated that he was not able to lead the national battle against COVID-19.

“He is strong, he will be concerned about the wider battle the country faces against this disease but he will also have been frustrated that he is in hospital.

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Boris Johnson children: How many children does PM have? Carrie Symonds drops announcement

Boris Johnson is the leader of the Conservative Party and the current Prime Minister since he was elected by the British public in December. In an unprecedented move, Mr Johnson has spent a night in intensive care after his coronavirus symptoms worsened and he reportedly struggled to breathe. But how many children does the PM have?

The Prime Minister was initially admitted to St Thomas’ Hospital on Sunday.

He was given oxygen after struggling to breather and then the decision was taken at 7pm on Monday to move him to the intensive care unit.

Downing Street said he was suffering from “persistent” symptoms of COVID-19, including a cough and a high temperature.

The 55-year-old was first diagnosed 12 days ago, but after the recommended seven days self-isolation had to extend this time due to persisting symptoms.

In his absense, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has taken up the helm and will act in his stead. 

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Ms Carrie Symonds revealed her engagement to Mr Johnson and that she is expecting a child with him on Instagram on February 29.

She said: “I wouldn’t normally post this kind of thing on here but I wanted my friends to find out from me…

“Many of you already know but for my friends that still don’t, we got engaged at the end of last year… and we’ve got a baby hatching early summer.”

Ms Symonds also said in her message she feels “incredibly blessed”.

Now Ms Symonds is currently self-isolating after experiencing coronavirus symptoms at her home in South London.

But the Prime Minister already has children from previous relationships. 

USA businesswoman Jennifer Arcuri appeared on Good Morning Britain where she refused to deny she had embarked on an extra-marital affair with the PM.

During their time together, Ms Arcuri claims Mr Johnson told her that he has a fifth child.

Host Piers Morgan asked her whether they had spoken about Mr Johnson’s love child.

When asked about how many children he has, Ms Arcuri said: “I think I have a vague idea. I asked him once.”

She added: “I asked him once if he had as many kids as Ken Livingstone, and he said no.”

Ken Livingstone has repeatedly endeavoured to keep his family life private, but it is known he has five children.

When pressed by the show’s hosts for more detail, Ms Arcuri said: “Well, he had the four, and one” with another woman.

We’ve got a baby hatching early summer

Carrie Symonds

Ms Arcuri said: “Sure, sure, it’s part of what I would say, you know, would be becoming of his character.”

The revelation came after Mr Johnson was left flustered when questioned on BBC Radio 5 Live about how many children he has and whether they had attended state schools.

When asked on BBC Radio 5 and the News Channel if he had any children who went to state school, Mr Johnson said: “I don’t comment about my children.”

However, he added: “Your assertion that none of my children have been to state schools is wrong.”

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The PM then said: “I want all our schools to be superb and I want every kid to have – every young person to have – the same opportunities. I believe absolutely passionately in that.”

During the interview Ms Arcuri said she felt “heartbroken” after she was “cast aside” by the Prime Minister.

She also refused to deny having an affair with Boris Johnson but said they had a “special relationship”.

When asked directly if it was “an affair”, she said: “I’m not going to answer that question, but as you can tell there was a very special relationship there and when it did come out, half the people already assumed the affair and told me to admit.

“The other half just wanted me to deny, deny, deny.”

How many children does the Prime Minister have?

Mr Johnson is believed to be the father of five children.

Four of these offspring are from his second marriage to successful barrister Marina Wheeler from whom he separated in 2018.

The former couple’s eldest child is Lara Lettice, 26, who is a writer, editor and broadcaster.

She is a keen classicist and gained an A in her Latin A Level before she studied at Prince William and Kate Middleton’s alma mater St Andrews University, where she gained a Master of Arts in Latin and Comparative Literature.

Mr Johnson and Ms Wheeler’s second child is Milo Arthur, 24, who was educated at Westminster School where he was said to excel at sports before he studied at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies which he graduated from in 2014.

He is currently a student at Cambridge University and will graduate in 2021.

The third child from the separated couple is Cassie Peaches, 22, who like her father is a writer and was the student editor of their alumni magazine Cholmeleian.

The youngest of Marine Wheeler and Boris Johnson’s brood is Theodore Apollo, 20.

He is also at Cambridge University which his older brother, but it is not known which college he is at or the subject he is studying.

However, it is claimed the four children have a younger half-sister, Stephanie Macintyre, who is the daughter of an affair Mr Johnson undertook with art advisor Helen Macintyre.

At first, he denied paternity and was not named on the birth certificate.

However, his relations were revealed after a 2013 court battle in which he sought an injunction to prevent her existence being reported.

The Court of Appeal said: “The core information in this story, namely that the father had an adulterous affair with the mother, deceiving both his wife and the mother’s partner and that the claimant, born about nine months later, was likely to be the father’s child, was a public interest matter which the electorate was entitled to know when considering his fitness for high public office.”

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Parks will close if social distancing cannot be maintained, UK told

Housing and Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick said he had called local leaders to warn them to be “very judicious” in locking open spaces. Mr Jenrick was forced to step in after thousands of visitors flocked to green spaces in the warmer weather, despite the coronavirus crackdown. One London authority closed a major park on Sunday – warning residents were flouting ‘social distancing’ rules – but was accused of risking a revolt from people trapped in tiny homes.

But there are concerns that public confidence could be lost if those in power with gardens and ample living space tell those who live in crowded conditions they cannot go to the park or exercise outdoors.

Mr Jenrick agreed he has a “lot of sympathy” with those concerns as he said he had spoken to “a number” of councils who had closed parks over the weekend.

“This is their decision, but I have asked them to be very judicious in taking that step and only to do that where they feel it is impossible to maintain social distancing rules within their parks or open spaces,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“I think that is what motivated them over the weekend.”

Downing Street also insisted that it was up to local authorities whether to close individual parks.

Sunny, warmer-than-average conditions are set to continue this week, with a peak of around 24C forecast for Wednesday and Thursday in southern England, the Met Office said.

Mr Jenrick implored people to stay inside, with the potential for more good weather and the Easter weekend approaching being big temptations to breach the lockdown.

He insisted there are no “imminent plans” to impose greater restrictions after warnings that outside exercise could be banned.

“It would be very unfortunate if we had to do so and make it harder for people, particularly people who live in flats in towns and cities, to get the exercise they deserve,” he told BBC Breakfast.

And he suggested that measures could be relaxed before long if the “excess capacity” in NHS intensive care units can be maintained.

“If we can do that then we can look in the weeks to come to begin to very carefully… lift some of those measures,” he said via a video-link that was facing connection issues.

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“But an exit strategy that’s sustainable will also have to be accompanied by much greater testing and tracing than we are able to do today.”

One council to shutter a green space was Lambeth, which closed Brockwell Park in south-east London after saying 3,000 people, many sunbathing or in large groups, had visited on Saturday.

The park reopened on Monday and the council said it was “monitoring” the situation.

Police moved people on in north-west London’s Primrose Hill and rules were breached on the south coast too, but the consensus in Government is that the public are largely obeying the rules.

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Sturgeon humiliated as Scotland’s Brexit plea rejected – UK refuses to halt EU trade talks

The Scottish Government had written to a member of Boris Johnson’s top Brexit team to urge the UK to pause Brexit negotiations. Mike Russell, Scotland’s Constitution Secretary, wrote to cabinet secretary Michael Gove requesting a halt to the withdrawal process amid the coronavirus pandemic. But Mr Gove rejected the plea and said the UK Government had no intention of changing the end date of the transition period, currently set at December 31.

Mr Russell has refused to take no for an answer however, and said he has already resubmitted a letter to Mr Gove to restate the Scottish Government’s case.

He questioned how the UK Government can be focused on tackling the coronavirus pandemic while also pursuing Brexit negotiations.

The Scottish minister said there had been “no meaningful discussion of issues with the devolved governments for almost two months”, and this was unlikely to improve given the coronavirus outbreak.

He said there will be dismay across the UK, especially in Scotland, if the Government decides to “plough on” with Brexit in less than nine months’ time.

Mr Russell said: “But, bluntly, is the UK Government now expecting the Scottish Government to divert resources from tackling COVID-19 to carry out the necessary, extensive work that would be involved?

“There is still time to change course – and the UK Government should confirm without delay that they will seek the year’s extension that is on offer from June.

“That would ensure that every effort is put to tackling the pandemic emergency.”

But the UK Government has rebuffed Scotland’s request.

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A UK Government spokeswoman said: “Our top priority as a Government is to slow the spread of the coronavirus, protect the NHS and keep people safe – we are working around the clock to do so, with all four nations together providing unprecedented financial support for businesses, workers and the self-employed.

“We remain fully committed to the negotiations.

“The UK and EU have shared draft legal texts and discussions with the Commission are continuing.

“The transition period ends on 31 December 2020, as enshrined in UK law, which the Prime Minister has made clear he has no intention of changing.”

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Downing Street added David Frost, Britain’s chief Brexit negotiator, is still in regular contact with the EU.

A spokesman said on Monday Mr Frost is: “Still speaking to EU’s deputy head of task force Clara Martinez Alberola later on today to organise work over the next few weeks.”

He added: “We remain absolutely committed to negotiations.”

But the Government has come under pressure to postpone the Brexit talks.

Labour’s newly elected leader Keir Stamer said it was a mistake to put the EU deadline into law.

Former Tory MP Nick de Bois said the talks needed to be postponed.

Writing in the Sunday Times he said it was “illogical” and “incomprehensible” to spend time and money on Brexit negotiations during a pandemic.

The EU has also urged Britain to submit an extension request.

The centre-right European People’s Party in the European Parliament said the pandemic meant that commons sense should “prevail over ideology”.

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Coronavirus lockdown: Too early to say when measures will be reviewed

It would be a “mistake” to discuss how the government will end the UK’s coronavirus lockdown until it is certain the disease has peaked, England’s chief medical officer has said.

At the government’s daily news conference, Professor Chris Whitty joined Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and the government’s deputy chief scientific adviser, Dame Angela McLean, in refusing to discuss when – or how – stringent measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 will be eased.

The trio fielded a series of questions about how long the lockdown – introduced on 23 March – would continue to be in place and what the UK’s exit strategy would be from strict social distancing instructions.

But, in a message repeated by the two government advisers, Mr Raab insisted the “over-riding focus” was for the UK to “stop the spread and make sure we can get past the peak”.

They also played down previous suggestions that the peak of coronavirus infections in the UK could come this weekend.

When he announced the lockdown measures two weeks ago, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he would “look again” at the restrictions after three weeks and “relax them if the evidence shows we are able to”.

Yet Prof Whitty, in his first public appearance since recovering from COVID-19 himself, stressed a discussion about the next phase of the UK’s coronavirus response should only come once it was certain the peak of the disease had been reached.

“The key thing is to get to the point where we are confident we have reached the peak and this is now beyond the peak, and at that point I think it is possible to have a serious discussion about all the things we need to do step-by-step to move to the next phase of managing this,” he said.

“But I think to start having that discussion until we’re confident that that’s where we’ve got to, would I think be a mistake.”

Also refusing to discuss how the UK might exit lockdown measures, Mr Raab said the government did not want to “confuse the message” to Britons being told to stay at home.

“The risk is, if we start taking our eye off the ball, of tackling the coronavirus, stopping the spread and getting through the peak, we risk delaying the point at which we could in the future take those decisions on easing restrictions,” he said.

“So it is really important right now to keep the over-riding focus on maintaining the discipline that we’ve had, keeping adherence to the guidelines that the government has set out and making sure that we stop the spread of coronavirus.”

Dame Angela said the efforts of Britons to follow government advice and stay at home “are working” and had ensured the numbers being admitted to hospital with coronavirus were “not as bad as it would have been”.

But she added the “big question” was whether the spread of COVID-19 was slowing enough to make hospital admissions stabilise and then fall.

Dame Angela said it was “too soon” to tell whether this was happening.

However, amid concerns about the wider effects of the government’s response, Prof Whitty did admit there were four health factors to consider as part of a review of lockdown measures.

These are:

  • People dying directly from coronavirus;
  • The NHS possibly becoming overwhelmed by coronavirus, leading to hospitals being unable to provide emergency care for COVID-19 or other conditions;
  • The continued postponement of other healthcare to make room in hospitals to deal with coronavirus cases;
  • The long-term health impact of the socio-economic effects of lockdown measures on people’s lives and livelihoods.

Prof Whitty said the development of a reliable antibody test – to determine whether people had previously had COVID-19 and are therefore are unlikely to contract it again – would play a part in the UK’s later response to the pandemic.

But he suggested such a test could take months to be developed after the first batches of tests had not yet reached a standard to be approved.

Public Health England had previously claimed such an antibody test was only days away from getting the green light.

As of 5pm on Monday, 5,373 people had died in the UK after testing positive for coronavirus in hospitals – an increase of 439 from the day before.

Mr Raab took the news conference while Mr Johnson remains in hospital under observation.

The prime minister was admitted to hospital for tests on Sunday night after continuing to display “persistent symptoms” of coronavirus, 10 days after testing positive.

Downing Street criticised Russian “disinformation” after a state-run news agency claimed Mr Johnson would soon be put on a ventilator.

Earlier on Monday, Mr Raab chaired the daily meeting of the government’s coronavirus “war cabinet”, which is usually led by Mr Johnson.

In his role as First Secretary of State, Mr Raab is effectively deputy prime minister.

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Coronavirus: Downing Street slams Russian ‘disinformation’ over Boris Johnson ventilator claim

Downing Street has slammed Russian “disinformation”, after a state-run news agency claimed Boris Johnson would soon be put on a ventilator because of the coronavirus.

The prime minister is in hospital under observation after being admitted on Sunday as a precaution.

He confirmed on 27 March that he has COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Despite over a week in self-isolation, Mr Johnson still has “persistent” symptoms of the virus – a cough and a temperature.

The PM said he was in “good spirits” at St Thomas’ Hospital in London and “keeping in touch with my team”.

And his official spokesman described him as having spent a “comfortable night” in the hospital.

But Russia’s RIA-Novosti had reported that Mr Johnson would be put on a ventilator, attributing the claim to a “source close to the leadership” of the NHS.

The PM’s spokesman said: “That is disinformation. Our specialist government units have seen a rise in false and misleading narratives since the coronavirus pandemic started.

“It’s vital that any disinformation is knocked down quickly.”

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Coronavirus: Govt to further enhance Jobs Support Scheme, waive foreign worker levy for April, says DPM Heng

SINGAPORE – The Jobs Support Scheme will be further enhanced and foreign worker levies will be waived for April, as part of measures to provide businesses with more support, said Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat.

In a Facebook post on Saturday (April 4), Mr Heng said the significantly stricter measures announced the day before to combat the coronavirus outbreak would mean greater disruption and costs for businesses.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced on Friday that all schools and most workplaces, except for those in essential services and key economic sectors, will close for one month from next Tuesday, as a “circuit breaker” to curb the spike in local Covid-19 cases.

These “painful but necessary” measures are being taken to protect lives, Mr Heng said.

But he gave the assurance that the Government is equally committed to protecting jobs and livelihoods during this time.

“Many businesses are looking at your cash flow and working out alternative arrangements over the weekend. I understand your worries,” said Mr Heng, who is also Finance Minister.

He said he is working with the team at the Finance Ministry, together with other government agencies, to increase support for businesses during the period when the latest measures are in force – till May 4.

He added that the details will be announced in his ministerial statement in Parliament next Monday.

The additional support includes boosting the Jobs Support Scheme. Under current enhancements unveiled as part of the Supplementary Budget on March 26, firms will receive wage subsidies of between 25 per cent and 75 per cent for all local workers, in a bid to save jobs and keep locals employed amid the coronavirus outbreak.

This is up from the 8 per cent wage subsidy in the scheme announced in the Budget statement in February. The help currently will last for nine months, instead of three, up to the end of this year.

The foreign worker levy for the month of April will also be waived.

On March 24, the Ministry of Manpower announced that small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) will get a three-month extension for paying the levy for the foreign workers they hire. This is expected to give these companies more flexibility with managing their cash flows.

Another measure announced then was a waiver of up to 90 days on levies for foreign workers on overseas leave.

Mr Heng also said legislation will be passed in Parliament next Tuesday to ensure that property tax rebates are passed on to tenants.

Under the new law, property owners who fail to fully pass on the property tax rebate unconditionally to their tenants, without good reason, will be guilty of an offence.

The Government had earlier expanded property tax rebates to allow about 60,000 commercial properties that qualified for Budget 2020’s rebate of 15 per cent or 30 per cent to now pay zero property tax for this year.

Said Mr Heng: “This is undoubtedly a difficult month for many businesses. Additional help is on the way. I hope that businesses can tide through this month, hold on to your workers, and resume activities once the circuit breaker is lifted. Together, we can pull through this crisis.”

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Trump fires official who handled Ukraine whistleblower complaint

U.S. President Donald Trump has fired Michael Atkinson, the inspector general for the intelligence community who handled the whistleblower complaint that triggered Trump’s impeachment.

Trump informed the Senate intelligence committee Friday of his decision to fire Atkinson, according to a letter obtained by The Associated Press.

Trump said in the letter that it is “vital” that he has confidence in the appointees serving as inspectors general, and “that is no longer the case with regard to this inspector general.”

Atkinson was the first to inform Congress about an anonymous whistleblower complaint last year that described Trump’s pressure on Ukraine to investigate Democrat Joe Biden and his son. That complaint prompted a House investigation that ultimately resulted in Trump’s impeachment.

The Senate acquitted Trump in February.

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Coronavirus fightback: Health Secretary pledges to test 100,000 a day to defeat virus

Matt Hancock announced the new target to ensure a massive increase in the number of tests, that identify whether patients have the virus or have developed immunity. The dramatic escalation of the Government’s effort to tackle the epidemic comes as the UK death toll hit 2,921 yesterday. Mr Hancock also announced that £13.4billion of NHS trust debts will be written off by the Treasury to boost the health service.

The Health Secretary has now unveiled a five-point plan to root out the “invisible killer”.

On his first day back at Westminster after recovering from the virus himself, he insisted his experience had “redoubled” his determination to fight the disease.

He said: “We will strain every sinew to defeat it once and for all.

“And I will stop at nothing to make sure that frontline staff have the right equipment so that they are safe and can have the confidence they need to do their jobs.” Mr Hancock’s announcement signalled a huge expansion in the Government’s ambition for testing.

It followed fury that figures showed just 2,800 out of around half a million NHS staff had been tested for the infection, with images of sparsely used testing centres causing despair.

Over the past week, fewer than 10,000 people a day were being tested in the UK, compared with more than 50,000 in Germany.

And just 24 hours before the announcement, Prime Minister Boris Johnson had reiterated the Government’s previous target of 250,000 tests a day by the end of this month. Mr Hancock’s five-point plan included: 

  • Expanding swab testing in Public Health England laboratories and NHS hospitals for those with a medical need and the most critical workers to 25,000 a day by late April.
  • Delivering increased commercial swab testing for critical key workers in the NHS, before then expanding to key workers in other sectors.
  • Developing blood tests to see if people have the right antibodies and high levels of immunity to coronavirus.
  • Conducting surveillance testing to learn more about the spread of the disease throughout the UK and help develop new tests and treatments.
  • A new national effort for testing to build a mass-testing capacity at a completely new scale.

Mr Hancock also appointed a new coronavirus testing czar, Public Health England’s director of health improvement Professor John Newton. Prof Newton will oversee the implementation of the new plan.

The Health Secretary also unveiled a £300million cash injection for community pharmacies to help them fight the disease.

He admitted he had to “level” with the public about the scale of the challenge and acknowledged the criticism of the level of testing so far.

He said a country-wide shortage of swabs had been resolved, but that there remained a “global challenge” around sourcing the chemicals needed for the tests.

Mr Hancock said NHS staff will be able to get tested for Covid-19 “absolutely before the end of the month”.

He added: “With 5,000 tested since staff testing started at the weekend, we’ve clearly made significant progress.”

Mr Hancock said the figure of 100,000 tests by the end of April will cover all five of his testing “pillars”. He added that large-scale antibody testing – to see if someone has been infected with the virus and recovered – will only be rolled out when clinicians are confident it is a valid test.

The Cabinet minister defended his decision to prioritise testing of patients over NHS staff and said he thought any health secretary would have done the same.

Mr Hancock said: “I understand why NHS staff want tests, so they can get back to the front line, of course I do. But I took the decision that the first priority has to be the patients, for whom the results of a test could be the difference in treatment that is the difference between life and death.

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“I believe anybody in my shoes would have taken the same decision.”

Mr Hancock paid an emotional tribute to NHS staff who have lost their lives after becoming infected while treating coronavirus patients.

He added: “If the past few weeks have shown us anything, it’s that we are steadfast as a country in our resolve to defeat this invisible killer.”

Prof Newton said: “The initial priority, of course, is for the swab tests because those are tests which allow the NHS to manage critically ill patients to the best they possibly can and also to allow NHS staff and other key workers to come back to work when they can.”

Professor Stephen Powis, the medical director of NHS England, said: “I still think there are reasons to be hopeful, as I said a couple of days ago.

“One of the very first reasons for that is because we do see that the public is complying with the measures that the Government has laid out to reduce social contact and to stop the spread of the transmission.

“We do see that happening and it’s important we continue to see that happening.”

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