Ministers Deny U.K. Could Lift Lockdown in Three Weeks

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The U.K. government has denied reports that the lockdown imposed to slow the spread of the coronavirus could start to be lifted in three weeks.

Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove, one of those leading the government’s response while Prime Minister Boris Johnson recovers from his Covid-19 infection, said the plan remained to stick tothe five tests set out by Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab on April 16.

Sunday saw newspaper reports that the government had drawn up a three-stage plan for ending the lockdown that could see schools reopen as soon as May 11. “That is not true, we have not made that decision,” Gove told the BBC. Education Secretary Gavin Williamson later told reporters: “I can’t give you a date.”

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But Gove confirmed the idea of a staged easing of the lockdown when it does come, saying the hospitality industry -- pubs and restaurants -- would be “among the last” to exit. He said that a contact-tracing phone app, which would help Britain resume public life by enabling the government to see who people with the virus might have passed it to, was in beta testing.

Gove conceded that there was currently a shortage of protective gowns, needed by health workers if they’re not to catch and spread the virus. The government later said that a flight ofsupplies from Turkey, due to arrive Sunday, had been delayed.

Both ministers were forced to rebut a Sunday Times investigation that suggested the U.K. had failed to prepare properly for the pandemic both in the long term and in the weeks running up to the lockdown. The newspaper reported:

  • Johnson didn’t attend five meetings of the government’s Cobra emergency committee concerning the virus in February
  • The prime minister was distracted by his personal life, spending 12 days of the month out of London, as his divorce went through a crucial stage and he informed his children of his plans to marry his pregnant girlfriend
  • Pandemic preparations had been neglected for years as the government cut spending and focused on Brexit
  • In late February, the U.K. exported some of its protective equipment stocks to China
  • Companies offering to make protective equipment and help with testing weren’t taken up on the offer until April

“There are one or two aspects of the Sunday Times report that are slightly off-beam,” Gove told Sky, in what he later told the BBC may have been an “understatement.” He said the newspaper’s approach had been to “wrench facts out of context.”

“All governments make mistakes, including our own,” Gove told the BBC.

He rejected the idea that Johnson hadn’t focused on the virus, telling Sky: “His leadership has been clear. He’s been inspirational at times.”

Williamson also defended Johnson. “The prime minister, from the moment that it became clear that there were challenges in terms of coronavirus developing in China, has absolutely been leading our nation’s effort to combat the coronavirus, making sure that resources or money is not a concern for any department, especially the health service,” he told the daily Downing Street press briefing.

Speaking alongside Williamson, Deputy Chief Medical Officer Jenny Harries said it was too early to say whether the U.K. had responded well or badly to the virus compared to other countries, because the final totals of deaths weren’t yet known. “Probably the most useful statistic going forward to compare between countries would be what we call an all-cause mortality,” she said. “It’s very difficult to draw direct comparisons.”

Gove also told Sky that the prime minister was “recovering well” and “in cheerful spirits.” He said Johnson had spoken to Raab on Friday, who passed on his instructions to the rest of the cabinet in a conference call on Saturday morning.

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