Following a weekend of speculation about the government’s approach to the coronavirus crisis – and a sharp government rebuttal of the Sunday Times expose in particular – Number 10 indicated in today’s lobby briefing that the government is cautious about easing the lockdown for fear of sparking a second wave of coronavirus cases. With the Prime Minister still taking time to recover from Covid-19, First Secretary of State Dominic Raab continues to convene meetings in his absence – but the lack of confirmation from government about when information on an ‘exit strategy’ is likely to be made public is likely to fuel existing media speculation about a void in leadership at the top of government. This is brought sharply into focus when compared with Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement today that she intends to set out a framework on easing lockdown restrictions later this week.
The continued delays in both supplying PPE to the front line, and ensuring coronavirus testing is increased, have again caused problems for the government and Chancellor Rishi Sunak began this evening’s press conference with reassurances that the government is working around the clock to ensure PPE deliveries arrive as soon as possible. Key NHS organisations have criticised the government over a delay of PPE from Turkey – a delivery that was much publicised over the weekend. Although Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden earlier confirmed that a flight was due to depart Turkey this afternoon, there are concerns by NHS leaders that the shipment will still be delivered very late today. The return of Parliament tomorrow, in a new hybrid format where up to 50 MPs will attend the chamber and where others will dial in on Zoom, will enable MPs to better scrutinise the government’s response to the crisis on all fronts.
The Chancellor today announced two initiatives aimed at boosting the economic recovery following a future lifting of restrictions. As outlined in this evening’s press conference, the New Future Fund will provide a total of £1.25 billion to help innovative, high-growth SMEs across all sectors so that these companies can continue to invest following the crisis. Rishi Sunak reiterated that the businesses, jobs and technologies of the future are what will drive the UK’s recovery and that the government has a key role to play in ensuring this happens.
New Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer today used a briefing call with Dominic Raab to raise his concerns about PPE, testing and a plan for lifting the lockdown. YouGov polling released today suggests that since Starmer became leader, he has potentially won back some Liberal Democrat and Green Party voters, with Labour now polling on 32%. However, the Conservatives reached a new high of 53% in the same poll.
Summary of the press conference
Rishi Sunak, Chancellor of the Exchequer
- PPE is an international challenge, one which many other countries are experiencing. Alongside the efforts of British businesses and embassies around the world, we are working hard to deliver this. Today we appointed Paul Deighton to lead on the domestic effort to increase the supply of PPE. We are seeing shipments from suppliers in the UK and abroad. We are currently working to resolve the Turkish shipment of PPE as soon as possible after delays this weekend, and we have also received 140,000 gowns from Myanmar. We are pursuing every possible option when it comes to PPE procurement.
- Exactly one month ago today we announced our economic support package for businesses and today we deliver. HMRC opened the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme at 8am this morning. As of 4pm, over 140,000 firms have applied, and grants will pay the wages of more than 1 million people who would have been at risk of losing their job. Firms should receive cash within 6 working days and HMRC will provide updates on how many people have been furloughed. Thousands of staff at HMRC and HMT have worked around the clock to get this new system up and running. This remarkable story of public service reminds us how many different people are playing a role in this crisis.
- It is important to be clear why we have introduced this and other schemes to support businesses and the self-employed. We’ve never seen an economic crisis like this one. Times like this demand that the state turns to its most immediate purpose – the protection and support of its people.
- The Office for Budget Responsibility said last week that the situation would have been much worse without these actions and in everything we have done, we are sowing the seeds of our ultimate recovery.
- As we look ahead, it’s critical we don’t just maintain jobs that already exist but encourage the businesses, jobs and technologies of the future. This is what will drive our growth as we recover. Earlier today I launched two initiatives worth £1.25 billion – the New Future Fund, worth £500 million, will ensure high growth companies that have been impacted by the crisis can continue to access invest they need. This will be made up of funding from the government and the private sector and will launch in May, providing early stage companies with between £125,000 and £5 million in loans.
- Alongside this, Business Secretary Alok Sharma has worked closely with Innovate UK to provide £750 million of targeted grant and loan funding for thousands of highly innovative SMEs in every sector, region and nation of the UK.
- The most important thing in protecting the health of the economy is protecting the health of the people. As of today, 501,379 tests for Covid-19 have taken place, with 19,316 carried out yesterday. So far, 12,4743 people have tested positive for coronavirus, an increase of 4,676 since yesterday. A total of 17,971 people have been admitted to hospital with coronavirus and 16,509 have now died, an increase of 449 since yesterday.
- We must be satisfied we have met the five tests outlined by the Health Secretary last week before we consider lifting any restrictions.
- [When questioned about difficulties in SMES accessing loans] We are not persuaded that a 100% guarantee is the right thing to do. There is already cash grant support for businesses and a generous furlough scheme. When we look at the totality of what we are doing, it is more significant in scope and scale than other countries. We are sympathetic to the speeding up of the delivery of the loans, but 12,000 loans have already out to SMEs – double than this time a week ago. About 35,000 applications have been made, with a 80-90% acceptance rate. There are signs of progress, and we are working with the British Business Bank and banks to see if there are elements to the loan scheme that can be streamlined.
Professor Dame Angela McLean, Deputy Chief Scientific Adviser
Presented the following slides:
- Transport slide – All public transport use is less than 20% of what it was in February, with rail and tube use down by 95%.
- New UK cases – This has stopped rising, and is stable and flat.
- Number of people in hospital with Covid-19 – This remains stable across the country. It is the seventh day in the row it’s fallen in London. We are looking forward to seeing this replicated in other regions.
- Global death comparison – outlined that there are two lines for the UK, hospitals and all settings.
- Prime Minister Boris Johnson is reported, according to today’s Times, to be cautious about easing the lockdown for fear of sparking a second wave of coronavirus infections. He reportedly held a two-hour meeting on Friday with key government figures at which he said lifting restrictions too soon could result in a second peak and lead to another lockdown. Speaking on BBC Breakfast this morning, Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden confirmed that the government is reluctant to lift the lockdown for this reason. This position was also echoed by the Prime Minister’s spokesman at this lunchtime’s lobby briefing.
- Number 10 have confirmed that Boris Johnson is getting daily written updates on coronavirus policy as he recuperates at Chequers, but is not engaged in government work. He has, however, spoken with First Secretary of State Dominic Raab and senior members of his Number 10 team.
- Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said this morning that the delayed delivery of PPE from Turkey is due to arrive later today, with the flight having been expected to take off this afternoon.
- Dowden also supported calls from Labour and trade unions for a minute’s silence to honour the NHS workers who have died from coronavirus, and suggested the government will make an announcement on this soon.
- The government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance has warned that vaccines are ‘long shots’ in the immediate fight against coronavirus. Writing in the Guardian, he said “all new vaccines that come into development are long shots; only some end up being successful, and the whole process requires experimentation. Coronavirus will be no different and presents new challenges for vaccine development. This will take time, and we should be clear it is not a certainty.”
- Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said in today’s news conference that the Scottish government would set out a framework to guide its lifting of the lockdown restrictions later this week. She did stress, however, that it would not amount to a firm timetable. The Scottish government is also urging Boris Johnson to extend the Brexit transition period by the maximum possible period of two years.
- The Duke of Edinburgh has issued a public message paying tribute to those carrying out “vital and urgent” work during the coronavirus pandemic. He said “as we approach world immunisation week, I wanted to recognise the vital and urgent work being done by so many to tackle the pandemic; by those in the medical and scientific professions, at universities and research institutions, all united in working to protect us from Covid-19.” He also praised key workers in food production and distribution, the postal service and waste collection services.
- This morning, Labour leader Keir Starmer, along with other opposition leaders, were briefed over the phone by the Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, and senior government officials about the coronavirus pandemic. A spokesman for Keir Starmer said that he raised concerns about the availability of PPE and asked how the government intends to address the shortage. He also reiterated his support for the government’s decision to extend the lockdown, but asked what planning is being put in place for when the restrictions are lifted. All sides agreed to further briefings in the weeks ahead.
- Preparations are being made for the return of Parliament tomorrow, which will meet at 2.30pm. The House will consider a motion on the new hybrid format of the Commons, allowing MPs to contribute via Zoom. Further detail of how Parliament will operate during this lockdown period will emerge tomorrow afternoon.
- Dominic Raab will deputise for Boris Johnson at PMQs on Wednesday, but the exact details of how PMQs will work under the new hybrid Parliamentary set-up have yet to be decided.