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.
- 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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