In a move that is likely to further increase the pressure on the UK Government, The Welsh Government has published their exit strategy from lockdown today.
he Telegraph is reporting that the Prime Minister could be back at work by Monday, speaking at a press conference last night President Donald Trump suggested that Boris Johnson was ready to get back to work “I will tell you, he sounded incredible, he was ready to go.” Trump said. “It’s like the old Boris, tremendous energy, tremendous drive.”
The Prime Minister will be returning to a Cabinet that is divided between wanting to ease the lockdown in early May to reduce the pressure on the economy (reportedly supported by the Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Secretary of State for Business, Alok Sharma and much of the backbench Conservative Party) and those who want to reduce the “R” - the Coronavirus infection rate -to as low as possible and do not want an easing until the end of May (reportedly supported by the Health Secretary Matt Hancock).
At today’s press conference, Secretary of State for Transport Grant Shapps announced a trilateral agreement with Ireland and France to keep freight routes open throughout the crisis, bringing in medicines and other essential goods. He added that ferry routes are being protected between Great Britain and Northern Ireland with funding of up to £17m. He has also agreed to fast-track a trial to use drones to deliver medical supplies, beginning next week on the Isle of Wight.
On Monday the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak will be giving a Ministerial Statement on the Economy. This follows speculation that the Chancellor is preparing to offer 100% guarantees on loans to Britain’s smallest businesses after pressure from Conservative MPs. The Financial Times is reporting that Mr Sunak is “weighing up” whether to go against his instincts and offer full state backing to loans of up to £25,000 to “micro-SMEs” struggling to get credit to see them through the coronavirus crisis.
UK Government reaction to businesses reopening
Health Secretary Matt Hancock has told Sky News it is still too soon for UK lockdown measures to be relaxed, but says he is "comfortable" with some businesses reopening. Companies including hardware chain B&Q, house builders Taylor Wimpey and Persimmon, and car makers Jaguar Land Rover, Nissan, Aston Martin and Bentley have announced plans to begin asking staff to return to work or re-started in a limited capacity. Mr Hancock told Sky News he endorsed their decisions as long as guidance was followed. "The things that are restarting are things that we never required to close in the first place, but what the companies have been doing is working out how they can have safe working following the social distancing rules whilst people are at work.”
Brexit Negotiations Progress
Michel Barnier, the EU's chief Brexit negotiator, has criticised the UK for failing to "seriously engage on a series of fundamental points" over its negotiations with only eight months left before the end of the transition period. Speaking after a week of online negotiations by videoconference with his counterpart David Frost, Mr Barnier said he was "worried" by the UK's failure to take seriously a number of key subjects that need to be agreed to secure the EU-UK future relationship.
Mr Barnier laid out four areas where negotiators failed to make "tangible" progress including level playing field issues such as social standards, the governance of the future relationship, and the UK's resistance to accepting judgments from the EU's highest court. "This week the UK failed to engage substantially on these topics. It argued that our positions are too far apart to reach an agreement", said Mr Barnier, referring to the issue of the level playing field. Mr Barnier also said there had been "no progress" on the sensitive issues of fisheries.
Coronavirus Press Conference summary
Grant Shapps, Transport Secretary
- 612,031 coronavirus tests have now been carried out. 28,532 of these were carried out yesterday.
- 143,464 people have now tested positive for coronavirus, an increase of 5,386 since yesterday.
- 17,049 people are currently in hospital with coronavirus, down from 17,615 the day before and down 10% from the same day last week.
- 19,506 people have now died from coronavirus, an increase of 684 on yesterday.
- There are tentative signs that we are making progress. The whole country is slowing the spread of the virus by observing social distancing measures.
- Announced a new package of measures for transport:
- The flow of essential goods into and across the country will be safeguarded. Trilateral agreement with France and Ireland will keep Ferry routes open throughout the crisis to carry essential goods such as medicines.
- Ferry operators have been under pressure due to falling demand. Ferry routes between Great Britain and Northern Ireland will be given up to £17m of funding to support them.
- Links to islands like the Isle of Wight are also being supported.
- Air links from Great Britain to Belfast and Londonderry will continue.
- 27 ferry routes between the UK and other European countries will also be safeguarded.
- Announced a new ‘transport support unit’:
- Spare capacity on public transport will be used for logistical tasks to support fighting the virus. We now have 8,500 volunteers from across the transport sectors, which will help move patients and supplies such as PPE. 9,000 vehicles will be available for this.
- Network rail’s regional distribution centres will be used to support testing efforts.
- The green light has been given to trials of drones to deliver medical supplies. Trials will begin next week to carry medical equipment to the Isle of Wight.
- Trams will continue operating in many areas to allow essential local routes to remain open and key workers to get to work.
- These measures add to previous action to keep the trains and buses running.
- There are now no British holidaymakers abroad on cruise ships.
- Each of us depends on the transport lifeline that key workers keep open.
- Lockdown measures will be relaxed sooner if people continue only to make essential journeys.
- Transport infrastructure stands ready to serve the country once this outbreak is over with.
Dr Jenny Harries, Deputy Chief Medical Officer
- Change in transport use. Has risen 2-3% in the last week. It’s important to retain previous success in reducing this.
- New cases reported. The curve is flattening. As we go forward, we will expect to see an increase in cases due to an increase in detection.
- Patients in hospital with Covid-19. This has fallen significantly in London. The number of people diagnosed in the last 24 hours with coronavirus has fallen to under 1,000.
- Critical care beds. NHS capacity has always been sufficient. The numbers of beds available have risen significantly recently. Capacity is continuing to increase as we move forward.
- Global death comparison. We are increasingly trying to provide a broader indication of deaths which occur outside of hospital.
- Health Secretary Matt Hancock has said the new online booking system will be key to the government reaching its target of 100,000 coronavirus tests a day by the end of the month. Speaking on BBC Breakfast, he said: “Not as many people have been coming for (a test) as we had expected. “Of course that was a problem but it’s a good problem because it means we’ve been able to expand who can get a test faster than we had planned.” However, Sky News reported that the online application system had temporarily closed following huge demand. The Department for Health and Social Care tweeted “There has been significant demand for booking tests today. We apologise for any inconvenience. We are continuing to rapidly increase availability. More tests will be available tomorrow.”
- The number of home testing kits available ran out in only two minutes after the government opened Covid-19 testing to all key workers and their families. a number 10 spokesperson said 5,000 home testing kits - the total amount on offer - were ordered online on Friday morning. Another 15,000 tests are anticipated to take place at the drive-through centres on Friday, the Prime Minister’s spokesman said. The spokesman added the government hoped to have 18,000 daily home testing kits available for key workers by the “end of next week”.
- The Health Secretary has also told Radio 4’s The Today Programme that the speed with which the number of new cases reduces will determine how long “we need to keep the [lockdown] measures on, and that is as yet unknown”. He said contact tracing worked better when the number of infections was pushed right down. He explained “the truth is that we need to get the number of new cases down, right down, and the lower you go, the more effective contact tracing is because the more resources you can put into each individual case that gets a positive test. You can really make sure you can get hold of all of their contacts and get them, in many cases, to self-isolate”. He also said that the contact tracing operation would be functioning in a “matter of weeks”.
- Ofqual have launched a consultation on awarding vocational and technical qualifications in summer 2020.
- The Department for Education have pledged £12 million to support vulnerable children who are most at risk of neglect, violence or exploitation to help keep them safe during the Coronavirus outbreak.
- The CMA has today published an update from its COVID-19 Taskforce, set up to monitor and respond to consumer and competition problems arising from the pandemic.
- Five light rail systems in the Midlands and northern England are set to receive tens of millions of pounds in support as they struggle to stay afloat during the coronavirus epidemic. However, the Department for Transport have not said how much money it would give to the five light rail schemes in Greater Manchester, Sheffield, Nottingham, West Midlands and Tyne and Wear. But it said the money would soon be forthcoming through deals with the relevant local authorities.
- The Department for Work and Pension and Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy have announced that furloughed workers planning to take paid parental or adoption leave will be entitled to pay based on their usual earnings rather than a furloughed pay rate.
The Welsh Assembly
Outlining the Welsh Assembly’s exit from the lockdown strategy the First Minister, Mark Drakeford, announced 7 questions that would guide them on when the time is right to relax the regulations. They are:
- Would easing a restriction have a negative effect on containing the virus?
- Does a particular measure pose a low risk of further infection?
- How can it be monitored and enforced?
- Can it be reversed quickly if it creates unintended consequences?
- Does it have a positive economic benefit?
- Does it have a positive impact on people’s wellbeing?
- Does it have a positive impact on equality?
Commenting on the plan, Mr Drakeford said “Coronavirus is not going to disappear – it is likely it will be with us for a long time. We will need to have some sort of restrictions in place for some time yet to continue to control the spread of the virus and reduce community transmission. This framework will help us determine what is right for Wales.
There is a long road ahead of us towards recovery to pre-pandemic levels, but if we continue to work together, I hope we will be able to make changes to the restrictions and see a gradual return to something resembling normal life.”
- The Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty was questioned by the Science and Technology Committee today and was joined by his counterparts from Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. During the session, Chris Whitty said he had no issue “in principle” of releasing the names of the people who sit on the Governments Scientific Advice Group for Emergencies (Sage).
- Greg Clark, the Chair of the Science and Technology Committee, was chairing the virtual meeting. He said it would boost confidence to know who was in Sage and what evidence they were using, subject to security concerns. Such a move would be “in keeping with the tradition of science of robust scrutiny and openness”, he said. He then referenced the Scottish model where the minutes are published adding “to be able to see the minutes published so that we can know whether, when the government maintains that it’s following scientific advice, that actually accords with the advice that’s been given.” Prof Whitty replied: “I agree.”
- Professor Whitty also said if the pandemic has prolonged negative economic effects then deprivation will create its own health problems. He said “this is absolutely within the scope of Sage and we’ve looked at this, is we all know that there is a gradient between health and deprivation and if as a result of economic downturns for prolonged periods, deprivation increases, that will have a health effect.”
- Professor Whitty said that the projected number of deaths is likely to be higher than 20,000 in the first wave alone. He explained that the reality is that “this is something we will have to live with for some time”. However, he does not believe this stringent lockdown is to last for the foreseeable future.