The U.K. will tighten a nationwide lockdown if needed to halt the spread of the new coronavirus, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said, even as pressure builds on the government to explain how it will eventually ease economically devastating measures.
Speaking to the BBC on Sunday, Hancock criticized what he described as a “minority” who are ignoring social-distancing rules to sunbathe or gather in parks, and said the government would not hesitate to ban all outdoor exercise if current rules prove insufficient to reduce the infection rate.
“I don’t want to have to take that action, of course I don’t, but we have already demonstrated that we are prepared to take the action that’s necessary to get this virus under control,” he said. “Let’s not have a minority spoiling it for everybody.”
Officials stepped up warnings for the public to adhere to lockdown rules ahead of a weekend of good weather in much of the U.K., which comes about a week before scientists expect the virus outbreak to begin to peak. But some parks closed on Sunday after a surge in visitors, who Hancock said risked partly undoing progress made on suppressing infections.
The U.K. on Saturday reported an increase of 708 coronavirus deaths, the highest daily toll so far, bringing the total to 4,313. There have been 41,903 positive tests, the Department of Health and Social Care said, though the government has acknowledged it doesn’t know the total number of infections.
There are “some signs” the lockdown is helping to slow the outbreak, Neil Ferguson, an epidemiologist at Imperial College London who advises the government, told the BBC. He expects the peak in about 7-10 days.
“What is critically important then is how quickly case numbers go down,” Ferguson said. “Do we see a long, flat peak or do we, as we hope, see a much faster decline?”
It was modeling done by Ferguson’s team that ultimately led Prime Minister Boris Johnson to impose the lockdown measures because it showed the National Health Service would be overwhelmed unless the speed of infections was slowed. NHS England Medical Director Stephen Powis said last week there is “early” academic evidence that the transmission rate has fallen below one, meaning each infected person is no longer passing the virus to multiple others.
With swathes of the economy shut down, positive comments about infection rates are adding to pressure on the government to reveal its plan for exiting the lockdown. Ferguson said the “precise strategy” would be formulated in the next week, but would “almost certainly” include scaled-up testing and contact-tracing.
Keir Starmer, the new leader of the opposition Labour Party, urged the government to publish its plans to end the lockdown.
But Hancock pushed back, saying it’s too early to talk about when and how lockdown measures could be eased.
Johnson’s government has been battling criticism over its handling of the pandemic, especially its failure to conduct widespread testing and a shortage of protective equipment for NHS workers and ventilators for patients. Hancock last week said the U.K. would scale up to 100,000 tests a day by the end of April.
On Sunday, the health secretary said the NHS has enough critical care capacity based on current data, but indicated his target for 18,000 ventilators would not be reached by the projected peak. Current capacity in the NHS is about 10,000, he said, with about 1,500 coming by the end of the week.
In addition, the U.K. is building out emergency field hospitals, including at the ExCeL exhibition center in east London.
‘As Strong as Any’
Later Sunday, Queen Elizabeth II will strike an optimistic note about Britain’s response to the crisis, according to excerpts from the speech reported by the BBC.
“I hope in the years to come everyone will be able to take pride in how they responded to this challenge,” the Queen will say in a pre-recorded address to the U.K. and Commonwealth nations. “And those who come after us will say that the Britons of this generation were as strong as any.”
Meanwhile Johnson, who Hancock said is in “good spirits” but still self-isolating with a temperature after contracting Covid-19 more than a week ago, urged people to continue staying at home over the weekend. “I know it’s tough, but if we all work together and follow the guidance we will beat coronavirus,” Johnson said on Twitter.