The U.K. is expected to extend its nationwide lockdown even as pressure builds on the government to map out a strategy for easing the restrictions amid signs the country may soon be past the peak of the pandemic.
U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab — standing in for Boris Johnson as the prime minister recuperates following his hospitalization — will make the lockdown call following an emergency committee meeting on Thursday. The panel is faced with a steadily rising death toll: 12,868 people have now died in hospitals due to Covid-19 in the U.K., after a daily increase of 761 in the latest figures.
Still, hospital admissions and infection rates are stabilizing, and Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said at a televised press conference Wednesday the outbreak is “probably reaching the peak overall.”
That’s led to calls for the government to explain how it plans to ease the strictest social-distancing measures, as some other European countries have begun to do. Since March 23, U.K. citizens have only been allowed to leave their homes for essential work, exercise, and purchasing food or medicine.
But Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon told lawmakers in Edinburgh the measures must continue for at least three weeks.
“While we are increasingly confident the lockdown measures are working, we are not yet confident the virus has been suppressed sufficiently to lift any of the measures,” she said ahead of U.K. government’s emergency committee meeting.
U.K. Health Secretary Matt Hancock said earlier that even discussing how the lockdown might be eased could lead the public to ignore instructions to remain indoors at a time when the virus’s transmission rate is still too high.
“We will not be distracted into confusing the messaging,” Hancock told BBC Radio 4. “The scientists can say what they like, the commentators can say what they like — frankly, the interviewers can say what they like — but we will do what is best in dealing with this virus.”
Hancock was speaking after Neil Ferguson, an epidemiologist at Imperial College London who advises the government on its response to the pandemic, said “decisions need to be accelerated and progress made” in putting in plans to exit the lockdown.
“If we want to reopen schools and get people back to work, we need a way of keeping transmission down in another manner,” Ferguson said, pointing to measures countries including South Korea have put in place to isolate Covid-19 cases and trace people they have been in contact with.
Ferguson said that would require a significant ramp-up of testing, another pressure point for the government. Johnson’s spokesman, James Slack, told reporters the government still aims to achieve Hancock’s target of 100,000 tests a day by the end of April.
But the latest numbers show that while capacity is increasing, not all of it is being used. Just under 16,000 tests were carried out, according to the latest daily figures, compared with total capacity of about 35,000.
Johnson himself has said widespread testing is the key to getting through the pandemic. It also feeds directly into the decision on the lockdown, where the challenge for the government is balancing the danger that lifting restrictions might increase infections against the potential harm to people’s health and welfare of a long shutdown.
Whitty, who is part of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies that counsels Raab and the government, said they are closely watching the rate of transmission of the virus — the so-called r0 value — a measure of how many people are infected by any one individual with Covid-19 in the U.K.
“It’s between about 0.5 and about 1,” he said. “The more we have an understanding of where that is, which will happen as we go over the next 10 days or so, the more easy it is for us to judge exactly how we can go through to the next phase.”
Elsewhere in the virus response effort, the House of Commons will resume on April 21 using teleconferencing software for the first time. Up to 120 MPs will take part in proceedings using Zoom, while about 50 MPs will gather in the chamber observing social-distancing rules.