UK extends coronavirus lockdown by three weeks

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab is meeting ministers on Thursday to discuss situation

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 16: A member of staff serves a customer at Gail's bakery-and-cafe in Salusbury Road, Queen's Park who are donating baked goods to NHS Workers on April 16, 2020 in London, England. During the COVID-19 outbreak and lockdown, the bakery-and-cafe chain says it is providing 2400 meals per week to hospitals in neighborhoods near some of its 50 London stores. It also continues to operate a home delivery business and allows takeaway orders at some locations. (Photo by Mark Case/Getty Images)

The UK on Thursday announced a three-week extension to its nationwide lockdown as officials seek more time to prepare an exit strategy.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said despite positive indications in some areas, longer restrictions were necessary or Britain would have a resurgence in Covid-19 deaths and illnesses.

"Any change to our social distancing measures now would risk a significant increase in the spread of the virus," said Mr Raab, who is deputising for Prime Minister Boris Johnson as he recovers from the coronavirus.

He said relaxing rules could cause a "second peak", which would risk increasing deaths "substantially".

Mr Raab refused to give any definite date for when restrictions might be lifted.

He said five criteria would have to be fulfilled before the lockdown could be partially lifted.

These included a “sustained and consistent” fall in the UK’s death rate, enough personal protective equipment in NHS hospitals and the assurance that a relaxation of the lockdown would not risk a second peak.

“I appreciate that the impact of these measures is considerable,” Mr Raab said..

But he said the restrictions were necessary as the country continued to pass through a “difficult and dangerous stage in this pandemic”.

Mr Raab chaired a meeting of Britain's emergency cabinet on Thursday.

Pressure is building on the government to map out a strategy for easing restrictions amid signs that the UK may soon be past the peak of the pandemic.

Its virus peak is expected to happen in the coming days. The death toll stands at 13,729.

On Wednesday, the UK's Chief Medical Officer, Prof Chris Whitty, said the outbreak was “probably reaching the peak overall".

Germany is set to reopen schools and other European countries have begun to ease restrictions, which has led to the UK facing questions over a timetable for when it might follow.

Since March 23, UK citizens have been allowed to leave their homes only for essential work, exercise, and buying food or medicine.

On Thursday morning, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said it was too early to talk about easing the lockdown.

Mr Hancock said doing so would risk people ignoring instructions to stay indoors when transmission rates were still too high.

“We will not be distracted into confusing the messaging,” he told BBC Radio 4.

“The scientists can say what they like, the commentators can say what they like, the interviewers can say what they like, but we will do what is best in dealing with this virus.”

Mr Hancock was speaking after Neil Ferguson, an epidemiologist at Imperial College London who advises the government on its response to the pandemic, said “decisions need to be accelerated and progress made” in plans to leave the lockdown.

“If we want to reopen schools and get people back to work, we need a way of keeping transmission down in another manner,” Mr Ferguson said.

He talked of measures that countries including South Korea put in place to isolate Covid-19 cases and trace people with whom they had been in contact.

The challenge for the government is balancing the danger that lifting restrictions might increase infections, against the possible harm to people’s health and welfare of a long shutdown.

On Wednesday, the government announced it would be testing all care home residents who were discharged from hospital for the virus, before they were readmitted to their homes.

It said it would also test all social care workers and people in their households.