A COVID-19 testing facility at Hopwood Hall College in Rochdale, Greater Manchester | Anthony Devlin/AFP via Getty Images
LONDON — The U.K. government on Thursday extended the country’s lockdown for at least three more weeks, First Secretary Dominic Raab announced.
Speaking at a press conference Raab, who is standing in for Prime Minister Boris Johnson while he recovers from COVID-19, said the government’s scientific advice suggests it is necessary to extend the transition because the data is providing a “mixed and inconsistent picture,” with infections still likely to increase in some parts of the country.
The decision came after meetings of both the Cabinet and the government’s emergency response committee, known as Cobra.
“Early relaxation would do more damage to the economy over the longer period … The government has decided the current measures must remain in place for at least the next three weeks,” Raab said.
The first secretary refused to put a more precise timeline on when restrictions would end but did say there will be a “transition” out of the lockdown, meaning measures could be lifted one by one when the government considers it is safe to do so.
Polling suggests the British public is very supportive of an extension to the lockdown measures, though the government has been criticized for failing to outline an exit plan. Nine in 10 Brits said they support extending the lockdown measures for a further three weeks, according to a YouGov snap poll published Thursday, with 67 percent saying they strongly support an extension.
U.K. lockdown measures are more relaxed than many other countries, with people allowed to shop for food and to exercise outside once a day.
As of 5 p.m. on Wednesday, 13,729 people in the U.K. have died in hospital after contracting COVID-19, up by 861 on Tuesday. A total of 417,649 tests have been carried out in England, Wales and Scotland, with 103,093 positive results.
Raab said the rate of infection, also known as the R0 value, was “almost certainly below one in the community,” which means that on average each infected person is passing the virus on to fewer than one other person. But the rate of infection is still above what the government would like, he said.
Relaxing the rules now could cause a “second peak” in cases later, which would push up the number of deaths “substantially” and force the government to impose a “second lockdown which will prolong the economic risks,” Raab said.
“The worst thing that we can do right now is to ease up too soon, and allow a second peak of the virus to hit the NHS [National Health Service] and hit the British people,” he said. “It would be the worst outcome not just for public health but for the economy and for our country as a whole.”
The first secretary identified five indicators that the government will take into account before deciding to lift restrictions: Levels of critical care capacity across the U.K.; whether there is a sustained and consistent fall in daily death rate; the rate of infection decreasing to “manageable levels;” sufficient testing and personal protective equipment in hand and able to meet future demand; and whether any adjustments would overwhelm the NHS.
Asked whether there is a reckoning coming with China, Raab said there needs to be a “very deep dive” into how the coronavirus outbreak came about, warning that there is “no doubt” there cannot be “business as usual” after the crisis.
He added the U.K. maintains good cooperation with the Chinese in relation to the return of British nationals and procurement of health equipment.
“We ought to look at all sides of this and do it in a balanced way, but there is no doubt we can’t have business as usual after this crisis, and we will have to ask the hard questions about how it came about and how it couldn’t have been stopped earlier.”
Health Minister Nadine Dorries tweeted earlier Thursday that journalists should stop asking about an exit strategy.
“There is only one way we can exit full lockdown and that is when we have a vaccine. Until then, we need to find ways we can adapt society and strike a balance between the health of the nation and our economy,” she said.