Britain sizes up lockdown options and underscores second-wave concerns

A cyclist rides past the closed shutters of Camden High Street in London, on April 29, 2020.
A cyclist rides past the closed shutters of Camden High Street in London, on April 29, 2020.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) - The British government is weighing up options for easing the lockdown, but with the death toll still rising, officials are warning that restrictions will not be removed anytime soon.

Schools could be allowed to re-start classes in a phased way when it's safe to do so, while some outdoor businesses may be among the first to be able to open again, at the right time, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson and Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick said on Wednesday (April 29).

But with health officials warning that the virus may last until a vaccine is found, the threat of a second wave of infections is forcing ministers to tread cautiously on lifting lockdown measures. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said the example of Germany, where new cases of Covid-19 rose after some social distancing restrictions were relaxed, showed the risk Britain faced.

"A second spike would be harmful to public health and would result in many more deaths," he said at a press conference from 10 Downing Street. "It's vital we proceed carefully."

More than 26,000 people have now lost their lives to the virus in Britain, according to latest figures reported on Wednesday that included deaths in care homes and the community for the first time, not just hospitals. The Department of Health and Social Care had been criticised for under-reporting the pandemic's toll by excluding that data.

Britain will next formally review its lockdown on May 7, and Mr Raab said the government is waiting to review the evidence from SAGE, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, before deciding how to proceed.

Britain's deputy chief medical officer, Mr Jonathan Van-Tam, suggested that the virus could persist for "some time", potentially until a vaccine is available.

"This virus will absolutely come back," he said. "We have to be extremely sure-footed and extremely painstaking about this."

In terms of re-opening the economy, the government is expected to publish 10 papers by the weekend detailing how businesses in different sectors can get back to work when Prime Minister Boris Johnson eases restrictions, the Financial Times reported.

 

Akin to leaders across Europe, Mr Johnson is under pressure to spell out how economic life might return to normal as unemployment soars and Britain faces its worst recession in a century.

"The lockdown measures we've seen will be eased very gradually and cautiously," Mr Jenrick said on ITV's Peston programme. "We're working across government to draw together the options as to how you begin to ease the lockdown, when the time is right."