Reports in the press overnight about the Prime Minister announcing plans for easing the lockdown have been somewhat dampened today, as Boris Johnson’s spokesman in today’s lobby briefing told journalists that the government is focused upon the 7th May date for reviewing social distancing measures; and that plans to relax the lockdown will not be announced until the government’s five tests have been met. Consequently, the government may be reassured by today’s extensive public polling results by Ipsos Mori which shows that three quarters of Britons polled do not believe that the economy should be re-started until coronavirus has been contained, the highest out of 14 nations polled.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock maintained this line in this evening’s press conference, where he reiterated the fact that social distancing rules will not be changed – and children will not be able to return to school – until the government’s five tests have been met. The five tests were then shown in today’s slides which were presented by Professor Dame Angela McLean, but it is notable that there has been an adjustment to the wording to the fifth test. Previously the wording of the fifth test was that the government should be “confident that any adjustments to the current measures will not risk a second peak of infections.” This has now been changed to “confident that any adjustments to the current measures will not risk a second peak of infections that overwhelms the NHS.” There is some speculation already that this softening of the language may indicate a lowering of the barriers in lifting the lockdown when the decision is made.
Hancock also announced a further extension of the testing programme to encompass all those who work and live in care homes, NHS workers and their households, workers who are unable to work from home, and all over 65s and their households who show symptoms. He will be conscious of the fact there are just two days to go until the government needs to meet its 100,000 tests a day target, the final figures of which will be announced on Saturday.
While the UK government focuses on upholding a clear message on the continuation of the lockdown period, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has made a first move on the question of whether face coverings should be worn by the public to protect themselves, and others, against the virus. Today she announced that the Scottish government has updated its guidance to recommend that face masks or covering should be considered in places where social distancing is difficult, such as on public transport and in certain shops and supermarkets. Westminster, meanwhile, continues to consider the advice on face masks which was submitted last week by the scientific advisory group for emergencies (Sage).
New data released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) this morning on Covid-19 deaths outside hospitals have showed an increase in deaths taking place in care homes. This prompted shadow social care minister Liz Kendall to publish an open letter to Health Secretary Matt Hancock calling for him to address six areas on social care provision to tackle the growing crisis in the sector.
Summary of the press conference
Matt Hancock, Health Secretary
- This morning at 11am we paused to remember the 85 NHS colleagues and 19 colleagues from social care who lost their lives due to coronavirus. These are the nation’s fallen heroes and we will remember them. Every day we are working through our plan to protect life and the NHS, building capacity so the NHS at all times can offer the very best care to everyone.
- Thanks to the NHS and the sacrifices we have all made at home, I am pleased to say we have 3,260 critical care beds across the NHS.
- On testing, there have been 763,387 tests for Covid-19 so far and 43,453 tests were carried out yesterday in the UK.
- In total, 161,145 people have tested positive, with an increase of 3,996 yesterday.
- There are 15,796 people currently in hospital with coronavirus. Sadly, 21,678 people have died, an increase of 586 since yesterday.
- This morning the ONS and CQC published more information on the impact of coronavirus including 4,343 notified deaths in care homes since Easter. The proportion of coronavirus deaths in care homes is around a sixth of the total, just below what we see in normal times.
- From tomorrow we will be publishing not just the number of deaths in hospital each day, but also the number of deaths in care homes and communities. This wasn’t previously possible. This will supplement the ONS/CQC weekly publication and add to the understanding of how the virus is spreading, and inform the judgements we make to keep people safe.
- We won’t change the social distancing rules until the our five tests have been met (see below)
- At the start of the month, we set a goal of carrying out 100,000 tests a day. Every day we are ramping up testing capacity, and we are on track to meet this goal. We are now at 73,400 tests a day. We are opening drive through testing centres, with a total of 48 going live this week. We are expanding home testing: we were carrying out 5,000 home tests a day last Friday and we will be up to 25,000 a day by the end of the week. Last week there were 17 mobile testing units, made operational by the Army, and there will be over 70 units deployed by the end of the week.
- We are now ramping up testing to include symptomatic NHS and social care colleagues and their households. Today we can expand access further. Building on successful pilots, we will roll out testing of asymptomatic residents of care homes, and all patients and staff in the NHS. Anyone working or living in a care home can now get access to a test whether they have symptoms or not.
- We are now also making testing available for the over 65s and all their households who have symptoms, and all those who have to leave home in order to go to work, and their households, with symptoms. This expansion will protect the most vulnerable and help to keep people safe.
- Our taskforce into Covid-19 therapeutics treatment using existing drugs has identified a number of promising treatments. The first of six of these is ready to enter an early stage clinical trial platform that we are launching today.
- We are also updating guidelines for the use of medicines in care homes, removing the barrier where clinically appropriate medicines labelled for use by one patient can be used by another who needs them, instead of discarding the medicine.
- We are working day and night to defeat this virus. The risk of a second peak is real, but we are working hard to keep it at bay.
- [Responding to a question by a member of the public on childcare]: It’s too early to say on when schools can go back. There are still too many deaths each day and the five tests haven’t been met. I can’t give a definitive answer as we don’t yet have the number of deaths and infections low enough for it to be safe to reopen schools, and we don’t yet know how fast the number of new cases will fall.
Professor Dame Angela McLean, Chief Scientific Adviser to the Ministry of Defence
Presented the daily charts:
- A reminder of the government’s 5 tests that must be met before lockdown restrictions can be eased:
- The NHS should have sufficient capacity to provide critical care and specialist treatment across the UK.
- A sustained and consistent fall in daily deaths from coronavirus.
- Reliable data to show the rate of infection decreasing to manageable levels across the board
- Operational challenges – including testing and PPE – are in hand, with supply able to meet future demand
- Confident that any adjustments to current measures will not risk a second peak of infections to overwhelm the NHS (wording has been changed, as outlined in the overview)
- Transport use – volumes of all kinds of traffic have fallen relative to travel in the first week of February. We remain pleased to see the use of public transport below 20% for buses, tube and national rail. We hope that people in motor vehicles are practising excellent social distancing when they get to where they’re going.
- New cases – We are seeing more positive cases from additional testing that we are carrying out, with positive tests inside hospitals starting to fall.
- People in hospital with Covid-19 – This has fallen by 14% in the last week. There is a particularly dramatic fall in London. Several other regions are clearly falling although there is still a stable rate in a few others.
- Critical care beds with Covid-19 patients – Across all four nations this has peaked and is now beginning to fall as percentage of all critical care beds.
- Daily covid-19 deaths in hospital – This has started to fall, and has been falling for last two weeks.
- All weekly registered deaths from Covid-19 across the UK compared with deaths in hospital – all weekly registered deaths shown here are higher than those in hospital.
- Deaths by place of occurrence (England and Wales) – deaths from coronavirus are dominated by those in hospital but this is not the only location in which deaths are seen.
- Global death comparison – The UK’s ‘all settings’ line is now higher than other key EU countries at same stage, with the US still the highest.
- Speaking on LBC this morning, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the government has distributed more than a billion items of PPE, while acknowledging it is a “very, very complicated logistical effort.” This follows a BBC Panorama investigation which reported that key PPE items including gowns, visors, swabs and body bags were left out of the government’s pandemic stockpile when it was set up in 2009; with some of these items now in short supply.
- Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has announced updated guidance on the use of face coverings during the Covid-19 pandemic. The Scottish government’s guidance recommends that there may be some benefit to wearing a face covering in limited circumstances when leaving home and entering enclosed spaces where physical distancing is more difficult, such as in supermarkets or on public transport. The guidance reads:
- “We are recommending that you consider using face coverings in the limited circumstances described above as a precautionary measure. Given that the evidence of impact on transmission is relatively weak, the public use of facial coverings is not being made mandatory and will not be enforced at this stage. However, we will keep this guidance under ongoing review as we consider any easing of the lockdown restrictions in the weeks ahead.”
At the Downing Street lobby briefing this lunchtime, the Prime Minister’s spokesman said that ministers were still considering advice on the use of face masks which was submitted by the scientific advisory group for emergencies (Sage) last week.
- The PM’s spokesman also indicated in today’s lobby briefing that Boris Johnson would not be announcing any plans on relaxing the lockdown this week. He said “we have set out that we will review social distancing measures by 7th May and the government is focused upon that date.” He also said the government will not be announcing plans to relax the lockdown until the five tests set for this to happen have been met.
- Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove has told the Commons that the government will publish the figures showing whether or not it has met its targets of achieving 100,000 daily coronavirus tests by the end of April on Saturday (2nd May).
- Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has launched The Skills Toolkit, which will offer adults, including furloughed workers, stuck at home during lockdown the chance to refresh their maths skills, learn how to do digital marketing, how to code programmes like PowerPoint and Excel; and to use social media and present themselves professionally online. The aim is to improve employability, boost confidence and support mental health.
- The Department for Education has published a report showing that at the end of last week, only 1.6% of children were in school in England. Figures show that only around 10% of children classified as vulnerable, and 4% of children of essential workers, are attending school.
- Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick has told the Commons that he is telling councils in England to plan the organised reopening of household waste collection sites, with amended guidance to be published shortly.
- The Daily Telegraph has reported that Home Secretary Priti Patel has been cleared of bullying members of her staff after an official investigation by the Cabinet Secretary. There is expected to be a formal announcement tomorrow.
- Shadow social care minister Liz Kendall has written an open letter to Matt Hancock calling for action in six areas of social care in order to bring death rates down, while expressing her concern about today’s ONS figures showing the impact Covid-19 is having on care homes.
- The second reading of the Domestic Violence Bill took place in the House of Commons this afternoon, which will introduce new powers, protective orders and change various measures in courts to help protect victims. Home Office minister Victoria Atkins also announced a further £3.1 million of funding for services that support children witnessing abuse at home during the Covid-19 lockdown. Funding will be given to councils, charities and police and crime commissioners in England and Wales.
- Labour MP Tony Lloyd – who was discharged from intensive care last week after falling ill with Covid-19 – is stepping down as shadow Northern Ireland secretary to focus on his recovery. He will be replaced by shadow policing minister Louise Haigh.
- Chief Executive of NHSX, Matthew Gould, told MPs sitting on the Commons science committee that a contact-tracing app being developed by the government would be trialled in a ‘small area’ before potentially being rolled out nationally next month, subject to its performance in these trials.