UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson applauds outside 10 Downing Street during the Clap for our Carers campaign in support of the NHS on May 7 2020. Picture: REUTERS/HANNAH MCKAY
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson applauds outside 10 Downing Street during the Clap for our Carers campaign in support of the NHS on May 7 2020. Picture: REUTERS/HANNAH MCKAY

London — Boris Johnson’s government tried to damp the expectation that the UK’s coronavirus lockdown will be significantly rolled back as top scientists warned the country’s infection rate has crept upward in recent days.

The prime minister will set out a plan for how the restrictions will be eased in a statement to the nation on Sunday. A person familiar with the matter suggested rules may not change significantly until June, when small shops may be allowed to reopen. Details are not expected to be finalised until Sunday, as Johnson’s team consider the latest data.

Government officials spent much of Thursday trying to counter reports suggesting that there will be a significant lifting of the lockdown. Britons woke up on Thursday to front-page headlines ranging from “Happy Monday” to “Hurrah! Lockdown Freedom Beckons.”

Ahead of a long holiday weekend that starts on Friday and is predicted to be sunny, foreign secretary Dominic Raab insisted that the restrictions will remain in place until the government says otherwise.

“Whatever is being reported in the newspapers is not a reliable guide to either the evidence that we’re getting or the policy decisions that will be taken,” he said. “The point at which we make even the smallest of changes to the current guidance will be a point of maximum risk.”

Johnson’s plan

The reason for the administration’s caution was laid bare when National Statistician Ian Diamond backed a scientific assessment that the infection rate had risen at least a little in recent days, largely due to the continuing spread of the disease in care homes. He estimated that there are now as many as 20,000 new cases a day, far more than the official count of confirmed Covid-19 infections, which has ranged recently from about 4,000 to 6,000 a day.

“I do believe that social distancing and maintaining it over the next few weeks is going to be central to continuing to reduce the epidemic,” Diamond said, speaking at a press conference in London alongside Raab.

Johnson is due to make his announcement at 7pm on Sunday to give details about what he has described as “Phase Two” of the crisis. Raab said that “it is safe to say that any changes in the short term will be modest, small, incremental and very carefully monitored,” adding that ministers will reserve the right to tighten the restrictions again. The Telegraph late on Thursday said Johnson may lift the lockdown in fortnightly stages.

The Sun reported earlier that pubs might be able to open outside areas. According to officials, the easing will be less dramatic than that, with people allowed to sit or sunbathe in parks and exercise outdoors as much as they like, as long as they keep 2m away from others.

Data announced at Thursday’s regular televised briefing showed deaths and infections are reducing slowly, but are still at high levels. Raab reported 5,614 new cases of Covid-19 and 539 deaths. That compares with 6,032 and 674 a week ago.

“The virus is not beaten yet,” Raab said. “It remains deadly and infectious.”

Overreaction

Some government officials have said parts of the public overreacted to the lockdown, with workers staying home even when that wasn’t the intention.

The risk now is that, with the sun shining on a holiday weekend, people overreact in the other direction, taking the signal they can go to see friends and hold parties. That would risk a fresh increase in infections.

London’s Metropolitan Police issued a statement urging the public to heed the restrictions, and saying officers would be on patrol to enforce the rules if necessary.

“We are not going to do anything that would risk a second peak,” Johnson told his cabinet on Thursday, according to his spokesperson, James Slack. “We will advance with maximum caution.”

Thursday’s government data showed most people are keeping to the social distancing rules. A survey found that 82% of adults said they either had not left home or had only done so for permitted reasons in the past seven days. Even more — 92% — said they had avoided contact with older or vulnerable people.

Bloomberg