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Ministers are facing growing pressure from Tory MPs to explain how they will ease the coronavirus lockdown amid fears the economy could effectively collapse.
Senior Tory Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown was the first to break cover to call for an exit strategy to give businesses facing potential disaster “hope”.
Meanwhile, a senior Tory told HuffPost UK they wanted to see a “path to phased release by early May”.
MPs have spent much of the Commons Easter recess fielding calls from businesses in their constituencies warning that they face potential administration.
There are now growing concerns there may be “no economy, no country to govern, and no money to pay for the NHS if we don’t get out of this,” the senior Tory said.
And pressure for an exit strategy is growing after scientists including Oxford academic Carl Heneghan suggested the UK passed the peak of the peak of the epidemic earlier this month.
Health secretary Matt Hancock acknowledged for the first time on Wednesday that the UK was “at the peak”, while chief medical officer Chris Whitty set out in the most detail yet how decisions will be taken on the lockdown.
Clifton-Brown, treasurer of the influential 1922 committee of backbench Tories, has spoken out following a reportedly “tense” meeting of its executive on Wednesday evening in which members voiced fears about what could happen to the economy if the lockdown continues for many more weeks.
Other MPs are known to be privately scathing of the government’s handling of the crisis and bristling at Downing Street’s attempt through whips to ban MPs from the media unless No.10 agrees and briefs them first.
Clifton-Brown told BBC Radio 4′s Today programme: “We need to start this discussion about how we get back to normality.
“Whatever we do needs to be done gradually, but I think that we could, when the figures start to stabilise a bit more [...] we could begin to think about what are the next steps on a step-by-step basis to begin to get back to normality.
“We’ve got to think about the number of businesses, particularly small businesses, that – unless they get some form of indication when they might be able to get back into business – are actually likely to cease trading.
“Every business that ceases trading is a job, or more than one, lost.
“And therefore I think we are in a very, very difficult balance at the moment between that step-by-step opening up and inevitably when we open up it will expose more people to the virus.”
He added: “We have to, on behalf of the businesses of this country, begin to give them a little bit of hope as to when we might be able to get back to normality.”
The senior Tory acknowledged that his colleagues are divided between those who back a continuation of the lockdown to further suppress the virus and those who want a “significant shift” in the coming weeks.
A “graphic” Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) report that suggested the UK’s economy could shrink by 35% during a three-month lockdown has concentrated minds.
“But the most graphic thing for MPs is what’s happening to their constituencies,” they said.
“It will be messages from businesses saying: ‘We were a very successful company employing 200 people and if we don’t have some business by whatever date we’re going to have to go into administration.’
“The prospect of that is just hideous.”