U.K.’s Raab Rejects Fresh Calls for Early Easing of Lockdown

(Bloomberg) --

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson will return to work Monday as pressure mounts from his own Conservative Party to relax social-distancing measures amid concern over the damage they’re doing to the economy.

On Sunday, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, who has been deputizing for Johnson while the premier recovered from Covid-19, rejected calls for an early easing of the lockdown, telling Sky News the outbreak was still at a “delicate and dangerous” stage. More than 20,700 people have died in the pandemic in U.K. hospitals, including 413 reported Sunday.

Six business leaders, including Conservative Party donor billionaires Michael Spencer and Peter Hargreaves, have written to the government asking them to ease restrictions, according to the Sunday Times.

“We should really begin to offer a narrative of how and when it’s going to stop,” Spencer told the newspaper. Three unidentified Cabinet ministers told the paper they questioned how much more the public would stand.

In a series of television interviews on Sunday, Raab would not be drawn on how and when the U.K. would scale back restrictions. “Until we can be confident -- based on the scientific advice -- that we are making sure-footed steps going forward that protect life, but also preserve our way of life, frankly it is not responsible to start speculating,” he told Sky.

“We will need to move to a new normal,” Raab later told BBC TV, saying it’s “inconceivable” that schools will be able to go back without social distancing.

In the daily news briefing Environment Secretary George Eustice said workers taking advantage of the government’s furlough program -- where up to 80% of their salary is paid by the taxpayer -- will be asked to take second jobs in the agricultural sector to help farmers bring in the harvest, as migrant numbers are down.

Opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer wrote a letter to Johnson, published in the Sunday Mirror, calling on the premier to set out an “exit strategy” explaining how the lockdown could eventually be lifted. Meanwhile, Tories including former Cabinet minister David Davis told the Observer newspaper the scientific advice supplied to the government should be published.

Neil Ferguson, an epidemiologist and member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies that’s advising the government, said that the U.K. should look to implement a strategy similar to South Korea in order to ease lockdown measures. The Asian country has one of the lowest mortality rates from coronavirus anywhere in the world, with fewer than 250 deaths.

“If we can move case numbers down low enough, then I think we can look to the Korean model of how we sustain control of transmission long term,” Ferguson said in an interview with news website UnHerd on Saturday. “You need to start from a position of relatively low case numbers to implement that sort of policy.”

Asked if younger workers should be allowed to return to work, while shielding more vulnerable groups, Ferguson said he was “skeptical that it’s achievable.” “If you just achieve for instance 80% shielding, 80% reduction in infection risk in those groups, we’d still predict you’d get well over 100,000 deaths later this year through that sort of strategy.”

Johnson’s return comes at another critical juncture for the government, which has found itself on the defensive since the Covid-19 crisis began. The country’s death toll, from hospitals only, is the fifth-highest in the world, and business has slowed to a crawl. Johnson has spent the past fortnight recuperating at his official country residence, Chequers.

“He is in good spirits,” Raab told Sky News. “He is raring to go. He is looking forward to getting back at the reins on Monday.”

The government has ordered the production of as many as 50 million new antibody tests, designed to allow those who have already contracted the virus and developed immunity to return to work, according to the Mail on Sunday. However, the World Health Organization has questioned whether catching the disease provides protection from re-infection.

Bank of England Governor Andrew Bailey, in an editorial to the mass-circulation Sun newspaper on Saturday, sought to explain how the central bank was supporting the economy.

There’s some evidence that Johnson’s experience in St. Thomas’ Hospital -- he was admitted to the intensive care unit, and credited staff there with saving his life -- has made him less gung-ho in his attitude to the virus.

When some European countries were beginning lockdown procedures in mid-March, Johnson said at the time that such a reaction was unnecessary.

Fast-forward a few weeks, and he’s said to be particularly cautious about whether lifting social-distancing measures would risk a second wave of the virus at a time daily cases have leveled off.

Raab said the government is examining plans for travelers arriving in Britain to be placed in quarantine for as long as two weeks.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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