U.K. Likely to Announce Lockdown Extension This Week, Raab Says

(Bloomberg) --

British ministers will decide in the next three days on extending the country’s lockdown, with Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab telling reporters it was likely to carry on and the government’s chief scientific adviser saying he expects the daily rate of deaths to continue to rise.

Under the law passed last month to tackle the spread of coronavirus throughout the country, the government must decide by Thursday whether to renew the three-week lockdown period. Raab is standing in for Boris Johnson while the prime minister recuperates at his country residence after being discharged from St. Thomas’s Hospital on Sunday.

Since March 23, U.K. citizens have only been allowed to leave their homes for essential work, exercise, and purchasing food or medicine. The government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies will meet Tuesday and Thursday to assess the latest evidence, trying to balance the danger that lifting restrictions might increase infections with the potential harm to people’s health and welfare of a long shutdown.

U.K. Likely to Announce Lockdown Extension This Week, Raab Says

“We will consider their assessment, based on the evidence,” Raab told reporters Monday evening. “I should say, we don’t expect to make any changes to the measures currently in place at that point, and we won’t, until we’re confident as we realistically can be, that any such changes can be safely made.”

Later that evening French President Emmanuel Macron announced an extension of his own country’s lockdown until May 11.

Raab told the news conference that a further 717 people had died of the virus, taking the total to 11,329. “As those grisly figures that I’ve just read out show, we’re still not past the peak,” he said.

The foreign secretary said the “overwhelming majority” of Britons were obeying social distancing instructions. “If we let up now,” he said, the disease would spread faster.

U.K. Likely to Announce Lockdown Extension This Week, Raab Says

While Macron conceded that France had been under-prepared for the pandemic, Raab swerved questions about the government’s handling of the crisis. Challenged about reported shortages of personal protective equipment, needed by health workers if they’re to treat patients without getting infected, Raab said the principle problem wasn’t cost but finding supplies and then distributing them to all the places that need them.

Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance said that while hospital admissions for the virus had stabilized, he expected deaths to continue to rise, and then to plateau for two to three weeks before falling. That suggests the U.K. faces another month in lockdown.

“When we are firmly on the other side of it in terms of numbers coming down, only at that stage might we look at when those measures might be released,” Vallance said. “I absolutely understand the difficulties that some of the decisions make -- but it would be a waste if we were to rapidly reverse that and see a re-emergence of this.”

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He said U.K. scientists were currently reviewing their position on whether wearing facemasks offered health benefits for the general public: “We look at this and update our view from time to time.” But there again they must balance possible gains against the risk that encouraging general use leads to a shortage.

Hawks, Doves

The Sunday Times reported that ministers are divided between “hawks” who favor lifting restrictions close to the May 8 bank holiday, and “doves” who are more inclined to target the May 25 bank holiday.

But the events of the past 30 days -- which have seen the government move from telling only those with symptoms to stay at home to a full lockdown -- show the dangers of trying to make predictions even a month ahead in the current crisis.

Although Raab and Johnson spoke at the weekend, the prime minister is not currently working on government business on the advice of his doctors. He tested negative for the virus before he left hospital, his office said.

Johnson recorded a message to the nation Sunday revealing how dangerous his own situation had been. “Things could have gone either way,” he said. At the time, his office had insisted he was “in good spirits.”

His spokesman James Slack on Monday corrected a previous statement from a week ago that Johnson had been working on government business while he was hospitalized, conceding that in the event, he hadn’t actually received any papers, and that it had become clear he wouldn’t when his condition worsened the day after he was admitted.

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