England Virus Lockdown May Be Extended Beyond December

Less than a day after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a month-long lockdown for England, one of his top ministers and closest allies signaled the measures might have to be extended if they fail to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

“It will get reviewed on Dec. 2, but we’re always driven by what the data show,” Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove said on Sky News’s Sophy Ridge show. “We will always take the decision in the national interest based on the evidence, the best information that we have.”

When pressed by Ridge on whether the restrictions could be extended if the data wasn’t good, Gove replied, “Yes.”

Johnson announced on Saturday that England would go into a second, partial lockdown as infections spike and government scientists warn the National Health System faces being overwhelmed. Total cases since the outbreak began have now passed 1 million and the country has suffered more than 46,000 fatalities, the highest death toll in Europe.

Johnson had for weeks sought to avoid nationwide restrictions that the government worries will hurt the economy, and disregarded scientists’ advice to introduce a shorter “circuit-breaker” lockdown coinciding with school holidays. Under the new measures non-essential shops will shut, alongside bars and restaurants, but schools will stay open in a bid to allow people to remain working.

In a BBC interview, Gove indicated that the government may prefer to extend the lockdown rather than further disrupt the education system.

The government also extended its furlough program, which had been due to finish on Saturday, until the end of the new lockdown.

Gove said Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak is looking at every aspect of economic support and more details will be released in the coming days. The U.K.’s biggest business lobby group called for clarity soon.

“We would really welcome clarification from the government right now that as long as these restrictions are in place, support will be in place, because businesses need to plan,” Carolyn Fairbairn, outgoing director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, told Sky News. “If that isn’t there, jobs will be lost now.”

Almost three-quarters of English people support the government’s latest lock-down restrictions, according to a snap poll by international research and analytics firm YouGov. The 72% approval rate is, however, is much lower than the 93% support level obtained for the first national lockdown in March. Some 30% of respondents said they thought tighter measures are needed.

The dramatic move back to lockdown marks an end to the tiered, localized approach the government had been taking -- a strategy Gove said he would like to see resumed in December.

England Virus Lockdown May Be Extended Beyond December

The new measures embarrass Johnson politically, both because rank and file Tory lawmakers oppose them and because opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer had long urged a temporary lockdown.

“Three weeks ago we called for a circuit break,” Starmer said in a BBC interview. “At that stage the government rejected it out of hand, ridiculed it, now only to do precisely the same thing. But there’s a cost to that delay. The lockdown now will be longer, it can be harder. And there’s a very human cost to this.”

Even the announcement itself was fraught, coming days earlier than expected due to a leak of the plan’s details following a meeting of just four senior ministers. That breach is now under investigation, Gove confirmed Sunday as he defended the decision.

“The virus has proven to be more malignant in the way in which it spread than any of us had anticipated or feared,” Gove said. “It’s impossible to know definitively until the end of this pandemic which were the mistakes, and which were the missteps.”

The government confirmed another 23,254 cases in the U.K. on Saturday and the number of infected has grown by more than 150,000 in the past week, accounting for more than 10% of cases recorded in the country since the start of the pandemic.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

BQ Install

Bloomberg Quint

Add BloombergQuint App to Home screen.