Tories line up to blast government handling of lockdown exit strategy

Yet more senior Tories line up to blast government’s handling of lockdown exit strategy as Former Brexit Secretary David Davis accuses minister of ‘underestimating the public’ and Tobias Ellwood calls for a ‘road map’ to normality

  • Ministers have extended the coronavirus lockdown for another three weeks after a Cobra meeting yesterday  
  • Pressure for exit plan with report given to ministers urging cafes and restaurants be allowed to reopen soon 
  • Former Brexit secretary David Davis said there’s no reason why government shouldn’t be open about strategy 
  • Tobias Ellwood has said the fewer surprises the better, as speculation over the plan could be more dangerous  
  • Transport Secretary Grant Shapps says scientists have been asked to present options in two weeks’ time 
  • Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer says the PM’s absence might be delaying decisions on way out of the lockdown
  • Learn more about how to help people impacted by COVID

Ministers are underestimating the public by refusing to discuss exit strategies for ending the coronavirus lockdown, senior Tory MPs have warned.

The Government has set out what needs to happen before it will consider lifting the measures, but there has been no detail on how the easing of restrictions will take place.

Tory backbenchers and former ministers say there needs to be ‘strategic clarity’ and that the argument put forward by the Government about not wanting to ‘confuse the message’ is not the right way forward.

Former Brexit secretary David Davis said: ‘Other countries have been very open about what they’ve done.

‘There’s really no reason, there’s no argument for not debating and discussing with all the facts available.

‘There are lots and lots of benefits of being open about this. The argument that was put, that we don’t want to confuse the message, I think is just wrong. It underestimates the public. The public understand that there are phases to this.’


Former Brexit Secretary David Davis (pictured left) has accused minister of ‘underestimating the public’, whilst Tobias Ellwood (right) has said speculation by the public over the plans could be ‘dangerous’ 

Mr Davis said the data underlining the strategy should also be put in the public domain.

Reflecting on how much is going on – teams working on a vaccine and some working on other aspects of the next stage of the pandemic – he said: ‘There’s actually comparatively little data in the public domain, and there should be much more.’

Former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith said the Government should stop treating people ‘like children’ by refusing to discuss exit strategies.

He told The Times: ‘The Government is going to have to accept and admit we are coming out of lockdown.

‘We need to trust the British people and not treat them like children. We must respect their common sense. They need to know that the sun is rising at some point, in an economic sense.’

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has said the Government is not being more forthcoming about an exit strategy because Boris Johnson is absent, continuing his recovery at Chequers.

The Prime Minister’s spokesman said that claim was ‘just wrong’.

In the wake of the calls for more discussion, a Cabinet Office spokesperson said on Saturday: ‘The Government has already set out five clear tests to consider before making any adjustment to its approach.

‘At all times we have been consistently guided by scientific advice to protect lives.

‘The current advice from Sage is that relaxing any of the measures could risk damage to public health, our economy, and the sacrifices we have all made.

‘Only when the evidence suggests that it is safe to do, and the scientific advice provides for it, will we adjust these measures.’

Tobias Ellwood, chairman of the Commons Defence Select Committee, said: ‘Command and control at any time, but particularly during a crisis, is invaluable in keeping the hearts and minds and support in place.

‘You want people rallying behind government, working with government, not acting against it.

‘The best way to do that is to ensure that they are as best informed as to what’s coming round the corner, and therefore fewer surprises, or guessing what might happen next, or speculating, which can be more dangerous.’


Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer (left) has said the Government is not being more forthcoming about an exit strategy because Boris Johnson (right) is absent, continuing his recovery at Chequers

He said a ‘general road map’ spelling out the conditions – without putting a timetable on it – would be ‘well received’ by the nation.

Asked if Mr Johnson’s absence due to being ill with Covid-19 is a factor in ministers’ reluctance to talk about what they plan to do next, Mr Ellwood said it has been ‘a real setback’, adding that the PM is the best communicator in Government.

He added: ‘I think you’ll see a step change in communication when he does return, but ultimately his health must come first, and that’s recognised.’

Asked when he thinks the PM will return, Mr Ellwood said: ‘I think it’s going to be a few more days. He was clearly hit badly and they want him back in full health, and so he’s following doctors’ orders at the moment.’

Mr Ellwood said there is ‘no major decision’ needed in the next three weeks.

‘What we need is strategic clarity as to what happens next, and that’s what I’m calling for,’ he said.

Mr Ellwood said maintaining public support is ‘absolutely critical’, adding: ‘My concern has been that there has been a clarion call for an exit strategy when the Government must make clear there is no exit from this until a vaccine is procured and delivered to a sizeable proportion of the population, therefore the longevity of this needs to be managed.

‘Letting the nation know what is coming round the corner helps keep minds focused and people on board.

‘So I fully understand the concern of diluting that central message during the lockdown, but I see three phases to this.’

Mr Ellwood has already posted on Twitter about the three phases: a continuation of the lockdown; a post-lockdown pre-vaccine period in which there is a phased easing of restrictions in some sectors and reopening of schools; and a vaccine rollout.

It comes as Scotland’s first minister Nicola Surgeon promises to set out an exit strategy next week. 

Alok Sharma, the business secretary, claimed that discussing an exit plan detailing how restrictions may come to an end with the public would only ‘muddy the waters’ and undermine the ‘stay at home’ message, April 17

Alok Sharma, the business secretary, claimed that discussing an exit plan detailing how restrictions may come to an end with the public during the daily coronavirus briefings would only ‘muddy the waters’ and undermine the ‘stay at home’ message.  

It comes amid reports of frustration in the Cabinet over a lack of debate on the issue as the damage to the economy mounts.

The Office for Budget Responsibility warned earlier this week that curbs stay in place for three months it will slash GDP by 35 per cent, with unemployment soaring to 10 per cent and the government’s deficit hitting £273billion – the highest level since the Second World War.

It emerged on Friday night that ministers are considering two possible strategies, which are being discussed by their scientific advisers. 

The first involves extending the full lockdown well into early summer to ‘push the numbers right down’ – although this would risk further damaging the economy. 

The second could see restrictions lifted much earlier, potentially after the current three-week extension expires on May 8 – even though it could risk a second virus ‘peak’.

Ministers are torn over which strategy to follow and it has led to a lack of clarity among the public. Sir Iain Duncan Smith told the Times: ‘The Government is going to have to accept and admit we are coming out of lockdown.

Frustration grows in the Cabinet over whether to lift the lockdown in May or wait until summer 

Ministers are torn over whether to lift the lockdown at the start of May or wait until the summer. 

Frustration is growing in the Cabinet over a lack of debate on the issue as the damage to the economy mounts. It emerged on Friday night that ministers are considering two possible strategies, which are being discussed by their scientific advisers. 

The first involves extending the full lockdown well into early summer to ‘push the numbers right down’ – although this would risk further damaging the economy. 

The second could see restrictions lifted much earlier, potentially after the current three-week extension expires on May 8 – even though it could risk a second virus ‘peak’. 

It came as a minister warned businesses they would have to adapt to a ‘new normal’ after the crisis has passed. This led to concerns restrictions could continue until a vaccine is ready or even afterwards – with more working from home and possible staggered work starts to try to cut the impact of the rush hour.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab announced on Thursday that the lockdown would continue for another three weeks, as he unveiled five tests ministers would use before deciding if it is safe to lift the restrictions. 

It is believed some ministers are unhappy that there has not been a proper debate in Cabinet about when the lockdown could end. 

On Friday Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said departments had been asked to come up with exit proposals in two weeks. The Government was forced to deny claims by Labour that it was in ‘limbo’ while Boris Johnson was recovering from the virus. 

Although the Prime Minister spoke to Mr Raab on Thursday, he has not been working on his government boxes. Scientists say extending the lockdown into the summer would drastically reduce transmission rates and the ‘extremely low’ level of cases would make it easier for health officials to manage the pandemic. 

‘We need to trust the British people and not treat them like children. We must respect their common sense. They need to know that the sun is rising at some point in an economic sense.’ 

According to the Daily Telegraph, ministers have not agreed on which strategy to follow and will not formulate a plan until Boris Johnson resumes his duties as Prime Minister.

Mr Johnson is continuing his recovery at Chequers and is not doing Government work, according to a Government spokesman. 

Other cabinet ministers are said to agree privately with Sir Iain Duncan Smith’s view that the government will lose the public’s support if they continue to play their cards to close to their chest, reports The Times.  

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps revealed yesterday that Britons should hold off booking summer holidays until the ‘trajectory’ of the coronavirus outbreak is clearer – as he admitted an ‘exit plan’ from lockdown will not be unveiled for at least two weeks.

He said he had no intention of lining up a break himself amid fears that travel curbs could drag on for months to come.  

And Mr Shapps raised fresh fears about drift in the government by revealing that medical and scientific advisers have been asked to present their options for easing the draconian social distancing measures in a fortnight’s time.   

The extraordinary schedule emerged despite mounting pressure to show how the country can get out of the crisis that is threatening to tear the economy to shreds. 

It is believed some ministers are unhappy that there has not been a proper debate in Cabinet about when the lockdown could end. 

On Friday Mr Shapps said departments had been asked to come up with exit proposals in two weeks. The Government was forced to deny claims by Labour that it was in ‘limbo’ while Boris Johnson was recovering from the virus. 

Although the Prime Minister spoke to Mr Raab on Thursday, he has not been working on his government boxes. Scientists say extending the lockdown into the summer would drastically reduce transmission rates and the ‘extremely low’ level of cases would make it easier for health officials to manage the pandemic. 

This is because they would have the capacity to isolate anyone who tests positive, as well as tracing and testing their contacts. 

However, such an approach would mean that the economy would continue to stall. The second option could see the lockdown lifted in as little as three weeks. But the rate of community transmission would still probably be relatively high at this point, and it would not be possible to individually track all cases. 

This could risk a dangerous resurgence of the disease. A source close to the Government confirmed that, whichever option is followed, the plan is to lift the lockdown in stages – with outdoor spaces likely to be first and pubs last. 

Under plans being drawn up, certain social distancing measures, including working from home where possible, will stay in place until there is a vaccine. Some experts believe this to be at least a year away. 

Labour leader Keir Starmer accused Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab of being ‘reluctant’ to sign off a plan while Boris Johnson is still recuperating from his own infection at Chequers.  

Sir Keir Starmer accused Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab (pictured) of being ‘reluctant’ to sign off a strategy while the PM is still recuperating from his own infection at Chequers

Britons should hold off booking summer holidays until the ‘trajectory’ of the coronavirus outbreak is clearer, Grant Shapps suggested yesterday 

Meanwhile, Nicola Sturgeon fueled the row by insisting she is ‘treating the public like grown ups’ by unveiling her own ‘framework’ next week for how lockdown could be phased out.  

Mr Shapps told LBC radio: ‘We’ve said now that this three-week period will contain a review by the scientists at the end of this month, so that’s actually only two weeks away, whilst they’ll be reviewing this.

‘And I hope we’ll be in a position to provide, well I know we’ll be in a position to provide, greater clarity.’  

Announcing in Downing Street that the curbs will stay for at least another three weeks, Mr Raab said there was ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ and the outbreak was coming under control.

But he rejected calls for an ‘exit strategy’ to be unveiled now, amid fears that the public would assume the restrictions are about to be lifted. ‘We are being as open as we responsibly can at this stage,’ he said. 

But Ms Sturgeon struck a notably different tone. 

Raab’s five criteria before loosening lockdown 

Dominic Raab batted away calls to to set out an ‘exit strategy’ from lockdown tonight.  

Instead he merely offered five criteria for when the lockdown could start being loosened. #

They are: 

1. Ensure NHS can provide enough critical care treatment 

2. A ‘sustained and consistent fall’ in daily death rate 

3. Reliable data showing rate of infection is decreasing to manageable levels 

4. Testing capacity and PPE supply are ready to meet future demand 

5. There is no risk of second peak to overwhelm the NHS 

Speaking on the BBC’s Coronavirus Newscast podcast Sir Keir said: ‘I think that throughout this they’ve struggled with taking decisions quickly enough…  

‘It feels as though they’ve been in a position probably for a week or 10 days now where it’s been difficult for the Government to make big decisions. And I think there’s a bit of that lying behind this as well. 

‘I suspect, although I don’t know, that Dominic Raab is just reluctant – he probably does know that it’s time for an exit strategy – but he’s probably reluctant to sign it off without the Prime Minister and I think there’s a bit of that in the mix.’  

‘I’m not going to set out next week the date on which lockdown will be lifted,’ she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme

‘What I’m going to try to do is set out the decision-making framework that we’re operating in, so that we are treating the public like grown-ups that they are.’ 

In what might be the first glimmerings of a plan, Mr Shapps speculated that in future businesses could help reduce risks by allowing staff to come in at different times. 

Asked whether passenger numbers could be restricted during rush hour after lockdown measures are removed, Mr Shapps said: ‘It may well be in the future companies say actually it’s worked pretty well having some of our staff working from remote locations, why don’t we carry on doing that?

‘Actually why does everybody have to get up and travel during the rush hour at a particular time in the morning?’

Around half the public are now resigned to the draconian ‘social distancing’ curbs being in place into June

He added: ‘There may be different ways to help, both in terms of businesses and organisations making those decisions, but also to do with the way that Government responds to spread the load better.’ 

Mr Shapps also warned people off planning summer holidays – as the crisis threatens to drag on through the middle of the year.

He said ‘clearly people will want to see what the trajectory of this disease is in the next few weeks’.

He told Today: ‘I won’t be booking a summer holiday at this point, let’s put it that way.’ 

Asked about the comments, Downing Street pointed to the lockdown restrictions in force making clear that they meant people should not go on holiday.  

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has advised against all but essential international travel since March 17. 

These measures have hit travel firms hard, with trips being cancelled and many people – such as Mr Shapps – delaying making future bookings.

A number of companies have furloughed staff due to the sector grinding to a halt.

WHAT IS R0? AND WHAT DOES IT MEAN IF IT IS LESS THAN ONE? 

Every infectious disease is given a reproduction number, which is known as R0 – pronounced ‘R nought’.

It is a value that represents how many people one sick person will, on average, infect. 

WHAT IS THE R0 FOR COVID-19? 

The R0 value for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is estimated to be around 2.5. 

But some experts analysing outbreaks across the world have estimated it could be closer to the 6.6 mark. 

Estimates of the R0 vary because the true size of the pandemic remains a mystery. 

HOW DOES IT COMPARE TO OTHER VIRUSES? 

It is thought to be at least three times more contagious than the coronavirus that causes MERS (0.3 – 0.8).   

Measles is one of the most contagious infectious diseases, and has an R0 value of 12 to 18. 

Chickenpox’s R0 is estimated to be between 10 and 12, while seasonal flu has a value of around 1.5.  

WHY IS IT IMPORTANT TO HAVE A LOW R0? 

The higher the R0 value, the harder it is for health officials control the spread of the disease.

A number lower than one means the outbreak will run out of steam and be forced to an end. 

This is because the infectious disease will quickly run out of new victims to strike. 

HOW IS IT CALCULATED

Researchers take into account several factors when assessing an infectious disease’s R0.

They include how long patients stay infectious for, contact rate and the mode of transmission.

INFECTIOUS PERIOD 

For instance, some strains of influenza and the common cold are contagious for up to eight days. 

Experts say COVID-19 is infectious up to three days before symptoms begin until three days after symptoms end.

But one Yale University study found that patients were still infectious up to eight days after symptoms vanished.  

NUMBER OF CONTACTS 

Another factor depends on how many people the infected come into contact with that aren’t vaccinated or immune.

If the infectious disease causes severe symptoms early, many patients would stay at home and have little contact.

For example, Ebola is known to have a low R0 (2) because it tends to develop before tell-tale symptoms appear.

But if it had a longer incubation period – the length of time before symptoms begin – then it would have a higher R0.

This is because the infected would come into contact with more people, allowing the virus to spread.  

TRANSMISSION MODE 

Transmission mode can also play a role, with viruses spread through the air known to be more contagious.

With COVID-19, evidence shows that it can be caught by breathing near an infected patient.

The virus can also live on surfaces, meaning it can be picked up without ever touching someone. 

But Ebola is spread through bodily fluids, making it harder to catch the virus. 

HOW DOES A LOCKDOWN BRING DOWN THE R0?

The UK’s draconian lockdown imposed on March 23 has slowed Britain’s coronavirus crisis, studies show.

Scientists at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine last month analysed the virus in the UK.

They estimated each infected patient may now only be passing COVID-19 on to 0.62 others, down from 2.6.

The team said the virus was struggling to spread because people were having less contact with others.

They used a survey of 1,300 people who were asked to list what human contact they had in the past 24 hours.

This was compared to a similar survey done in 2005 to give an idea of how it had changed because of lockdown.

Instead of an exit plan, Mr Raab has merely offered five criteria for when the lockdown could start being loosened. They are certainty that the NHS will not be overwhelmed, a consistent reduction in the death rate, evidence that transmission is at manageable levels, capacity for wide scale testing and PPE provision, and low danger of a ‘second peak’. 

In a sombre speech in Downing Street, Mr Raab – who is deputising during Mr Johnson’s recovery – said: ‘Overall, we still don’t have the infection rate down as far as we need to.

‘As in other countries we have issues with the virus spreading in some hospitals and in care homes and in sum, the very clear advice we have 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.

‘So early relaxation would do more damage to the economy over a longer period and I want to be really clear about this.

‘The advice from SAGE is that relaxing any of the measures currently in place would risk damage to both public health and our economy.’

He added: ‘Based on this advice which we very carefully considered the government has decided that the current measures must remain in place for at least the next three weeks.’  

Mr 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.’ 

Mr Raab said when the government has met its criteria it will look to adjust the measures to make them ‘as effective as possible in protecting public health whilst allowing some economic and social activity to resume’.

‘But we will only do it when the evidence demonstrates that it is safe to do it,’ he said.

‘It could involve relaxing measures in some areas while strengthening measures in other areas.’  

Government adviser James Rubin, who sits on the behavioural insights group, told MPs that openness on the plan was crucial and it was ‘very important that people have their expectations set on this’. 

In a bad-tempered interview this week, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said he recognised that ‘everybody wants to know what the future looks like’.  

But he flatly dismissed calls for the government to flesh out how the restrictions will finally be eased, despite mounting fears that they are wreaking havoc on the economy. 

Mr Hancock said the ‘clarity of messaging’ had a ‘direct impact on how many people obey’ social distancing rules.  

As pressure grows, a think-tank warned today that Britain’s fiscal watchdog has ‘downplayed’ the crippling long-lasting effects on the economy. 

The Adam Smith Institute accused the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) of underestimating the long-term hit from the lockdown and closure of a third of the economy. 

It said the analysis released earlier this week did not factor in the risk of systemic economic decline if Britain’s lockdown is sustained. 

The OBR predicted the economy could shrink by 35 per cent and unemployment rise by two million if the lockdown continues for three months followed by a partial lifting for three months – but its analysis did not assume any lasting economic consequences. 

The institute warned the UK was falling behind other countries that already have reopening strategies and timelines in place, such as Germany, Italy, Norway, Austria, Spain, Denmark and the Czech Republic. 

It said this was holding UK businesses back from being able to plan for recovery once lockdown restrictions are eased. 

Matthew Lesh, head of research at the Adam Smith Institute and co-author of the report, said: ‘The limbo must come to an end. 

‘The closure of one-third of the economy has been necessary to slow the spread and protect the health service – but it cannot last forever. 

‘We need a route out of this mess: a strategy to protect from this virus while allowing life to progressively return to normal. 

‘This will mean testing and tracing capabilities ramped up, maintaining physical distance in shared spaces, but allowing as many businesses as possible, as quickly as possible, to reopen their operations.’ 

Britain should consider prepping for a phased reopening and scaling back of state support for the economy, according to the free market think-tank.   

One of the government’s own key experts warned this week that curbs cannot be eased until mass testing is in place.  

Professor Neil Ferguson insisted schools and more shops should not be open until everyone with symptoms, and everyone they have come into contact with, can been screened. Even then, he warned there is no possibility of the country returning to ‘normal’ until a vaccine is produced. 

The epidemiologist – who has been modelling the outbreak for the government – delivered a withering verdict on the performance of ministers, urging them to ‘accelerate action’. He suggested the organisation in Whitehall was not on the same scale as the effort on Brexit, despite the crisis being much bigger. 

Discussing whether lockdown measures could be eased after another three weeks, Professor Ferguson told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘I think that will very much depend on quite how quickly case numbers go down, and that does require us to get on top of things like transmission rates in hospitals and care homes.

‘I think the other thing I would say is that it really requires a single-minded emphasis in Government and the health system on scaling up testing and putting in place the ability to track down cases in the community and contact-trace.

‘Because without that, our estimates show we have relatively little leeway; if we relax measures too much then we’ll see a resurgence of transmission. 

‘What we really need is the ability to put something in their place. If we want to open schools, let people get back to work, then we need to keep transmission down in another manner.

‘And I should say, it’s not going to be going back to normal. We will have to maintain some form of social distancing, a significant level of social distancing, probably indefinitely until we have a vaccine available.

Asked whether the Government is moving towards having an exit strategy in place, Prof Ferguson said: ‘I’m not completely sure. I think there’s a lot of discussion. I would like to see action accelerated.

‘We need to put in place an infrastructure, a command and control structure, a novel organisation for this.

‘I’m reminded by the fact we had a Department for Brexit for Government – that was a major national emergency, as it were – and we’re faced with something which is, at the moment, even larger than Brexit and yet I don’t see quite the same evidence for that level of organisation.’

Prof Ferguson added: ‘There needs to be more co-ordination I think, yes. That may be going on, I don’t have unique insight, but I think it could be enhanced.’   

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