BBC- Lockdown restrictions in the UK will continue for “at least” another three weeks as it tackles the coronavirus outbreak, Dominic Raab has said.
The foreign secretary told the daily No 10 briefing that a review had concluded relaxing the measures now would risk harming public health and the economy.
“We still don’t have the infection rate down as far as we need to,” he said.
It comes as the UK recorded another 861 coronavirus deaths in hospital, taking the total to 13,729.
Strict limits on daily life – such as requiring people to stay at home, shutting many businesses and preventing gatherings of more than two people – were introduced on 23 March, as the government tried to limit the spread of coronavirus.
Ministers are required by law to assess whether the rules are working, based on expert advice, every three weeks.
Mr Raab, deputising for Prime Minister Boris Johnson as he recovers from the illness, said: “There is light at the end of the tunnel but we are now at both a delicate and a dangerous stage in this pandemic.
“If we rush to relax the measures that we have in place we would risk wasting all the sacrifices and all the progress that has been made.
“That would risk a quick return to another lockdown with all the threat to life that a second peak to the virus would bring and all the economic damage that a second lockdown would carry.”
Mr Raab said the review concluded that the measures were working, but there was evidence the infection was spreading in hospitals and care homes.
He said five conditions needed to be met before the lockdown was eased:
He said he could not provide a definitive timeline, but said the prime minister’s warning at the outset of the epidemic that it would take about three months to come through the peak still applied.
“We know it is rough going. Every time I come to this lectern and read out the grim toll, I walk away and think of their sons and daughters going through this right now, their brothers, sisters, grandchildren, all those left behind,” Mr Raab said.
“It makes this government focus even harder on what we must do and I know together, united, we must keep up this national effort.”
It isn’t a surprise. But it is hugely significant for every single person in this country. The lockdown measures will go on for at least another three weeks.
Ministers from devolved administrations across the UK have agreed that as a united way forward. The PM’s deputy, Dominic Raab, said that we’ve sacrificed too much to ease up now.
And while ministers in Westminster have been very reluctant to talk about a future exit strategy – for fear it could distract from its core “stay at home” message – the foreign secretary did nod to how we could, in future, see measures relaxed in some areas while potentially strengthening them in others.
That may not sound like a lot of detail but it is possible to start tentatively piecing this exit strategy puzzle together. It’s important to say things could change as more information comes to light.
But, as things stand, it seems that the route out of this will be staggered, gradual and cautious.
The government’s clear and ongoing priority will be to avoid overwhelming the NHS. Increased testing will be an essential part of tackling the infection. And meanwhile the country, and indeed the world, waits for what appears to be the ultimate way out – a vaccine.
The announcement in the UK comes after a meeting of the emergency Cobra committee, involving the first ministers of Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland.
In Scotland, a further 80 people have died in hospitals. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the lockdown should continue because “we are not confident enough that the virus has been suppressed sufficiently”.
Wales recorded another 32 deaths, with First Minister Mark Drakeford saying it was “still too early to change course”.
Northern Ireland saw its highest daily toll, with a further 18 deaths in hospitals, and England recorded another 740 deaths.
The tallies for individual nations can differ from the UK-wide total, because they are calculated on a different timeframe.
Following reports that black, Asian and minority ethnic people were critically ill in disproportionately high numbers, Downing Street said the NHS and Public Health England would carry out a review into whether some ethnicities were particularly at risk from the virus.
Prof Chris Whitty, the UK’s chief medical adviser, said it was “absolutely critical” to determine which groups were most at risk, but said the evidence on ethnicity was “less clear” at the moment than other factors, such as age, sex and underlying illnesses.
Some countries across Europe which introduced lockdown measures before the UK are now beginning to ease them, including Austria, Italy and Germany.
However, they continue to require some social distancing measures, which reduce close contact between people and prevent large gatherings.
Not ‘back to normal’
Earlier, a scientist advising the government, Prof Neil Ferguson from Imperial College, said a “significant level” of social distancing would be needed until a vaccine was found.
Prof Ferguson told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that easing the lockdown after another three weeks would require “a single-minded emphasis” in government on “scaling up” testing and contact tracing.
Contact tracing aims to identify and alert people who have come into contact with a person infected with the virus, so they can be isolated and avoid passing on the infection themselves.
And he said the UK was not likely to be “back to normal” when restrictions were relaxed, with social distancing measures expected to be required in some form until a vaccine became available.