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The UK’s coronavirus lockdown will be extended for three weeks, Dominic Raab has announced.
The decision was taken as the epidemic appears to be reaching its peak number of infections in the UK.
It means Britons will have to continue staying at home, social distancing when out for exercise, essential shopping or work if necessary, and self-isolating if they have Covid-19 symptoms.
Raab, who is deputising for Boris Johnson while the PM recovers from hospitalisation for coronavirus, said the advice from the scientific advisory group for emergencies (Sage) said relaxing of the measures would risk damage to public health and the economy.
“Based on this advice, which we have very carefully considered, the government has decided that the current measures must remain in place for at least the next three weeks,” he said.
It came as the number of people who have died in UK hospitals after coronavirus rose by 861 in 24 hours, taking the working total to 13,729 as of 5pm on Wednesday.
Raab said that in the community the so-called “R rate” - the number of people each infected person goes on to infect, was now below one.
But the foreign secretary acknowledged problems with the virus being spread in hospitals and care homes and said the rate of transmission in the community was still not as low as it needs to be to lift the measures.
He added relaxing the measures would damage both public health and the economy, he said.
Raab said before the lockdown can be lifted, the government will need to see:
The NHS maintaining the capacity to cope with Covid-19 cases
A sustained and consistent fall in the daily death rate
Reliable data from SAGE showing the rate of infection is decreasing to “manageable levels across the board”
Supply of tests and personal protective equipment (PPE) meeting demand
No risk of a second peak in the epidemic which overwhelms the NHS.
Raab, who chaired the government’s Covid-19 meeting and cabinet today, told the daily Downing Street coronavirus briefing: “The very clear advice we received is that any change to our social distancing measures now would risk a significant increase in the spread of the virus.
“That would threaten a second peak of the virus and substantially increase the number of deaths.
“It would undo the progress we have made to date and as a result would require an even longer period of the more restrictive social distancing measures.”
A YouGov poll of 3,430 British adults taken before the announcement showed 67% “strongly support” extending the lockdown for weeks, while 21% “somewhat” back the move.
Raab said the public needed to show “patience” and stick with the restrictions to stop the spread of the virus.
“There is light at the end of the tunnel but we are now at both a delicate and a dangerous stage in this pandemic,” he said.
“If we rush to relax the measures that we have in place we would risk wasting all the sacrifices and all the progress that has been made.
“That would risk a quick return to another lockdown with all the threat to life that a second peak to the virus would bring and all the economic damage that a second lockdown would carry.”
Raab refused to give any details for how the lockdown could eventually start being lifted.
But chief scientific officer Sir Patrick Vallance suggested the government does not want to lift measures for different groups of people at different times, for example by allowing young people to return to a more normal life while asking the elderly to continue social distancing.
“The aim there is to try and do that in a way that allows everything to start moving more towards normal – not to segregate on certain groups and say there is a differential approach towards this,” he said.
He suggested that a vaccine and treatments will eventually give the UK a way out of the crisis.
“Those are going to be critically important,” Vallance said.
England’s chief medical officer professor Chris Whitty suggested that developing an effective antibody, or serological test, could help in easing restrictions.
Such a test would allow health bodies to establish what proportion of the population had already been infected, as well as finding a vaccine.
He said there were “substantial bodies of work” going on among the academic sector, commercial suppliers and Public Health England as well as government laboratories at Porton Down to find one.
Whitty said: “We are moving very fast in this area scientifically, but we are definitely not there in either of the issues of getting a serology (test) or getting a sampling frame, but we will probably have a crude ranging shot soon.”
Experts are meanwhile examining the risks of an extended lockdown leading to non-Covid deaths or illness, he said.
Those included medical procedures being postponed to help the NHS focus on Covid-19 and the economic impact of the lockdown.