The UK government has warned that the national lockdown may continue beyond the initial three-week period and further restrictions could be imposed to ensure the health service can cope with the coronavirus crisis.
Boris Johnson’s government is preparing for the number of deaths and diagnoses to accelerate in the coming days. In the UK 1,228 people have now died from the virus — an increase of 209 in one day — and 19,522 tested positive.
Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, said on Sunday that the peak of the outbreak is “not a fixed point, a date in the diary like Easter” after reports suggested the government believes the week commencing April 13 will be the UK’s peak of the outbreak. He said that behaviour would influence how long the strict social distancing conditions would last.
“There are different projections as to how long the lockdown might last but it’s not the case that the length of a lockdown is something that is absolutely fixed,” he told Sky News. “It depends on all of our behaviour. If we follow the guidelines we can deal more effectively with the spread of the disease.”
The nationwide lockdown, which restricts Britons from leaving their homes except for essential shopping and one period of exercise a day, was announced by Boris Johnson on Monday and is enforced by the police. All non-essential travel has been banned and only key workers are advised to use public transport.
Mr Gove, who is playing a central role in the government’s preparations for the coronavirus crisis, acknowledged “everyone is making a sacrifice” but told the BBC that the country should “prepare for a significant period when these measures are still in place”.
Although some senior figures in the Johnson government are eager to ease the lockdown as soon as possible, scientific experts have warned that withdrawing them too quickly risks a second wave of coronavirus cases later this summer that could overwhelm the National Health Service.
Neil Ferguson, a professor at Imperial College London who has worked closely with Downing Street on modelling and dealing with the coronavirus outbreak, suggested that the full lockdown restrictions should stay in place for up to three months.
“We’re going to have to keep these measures in place, in my view, for a significant period of time — probably until the end of May, maybe even early June. May is optimistic,” he told the Sunday Times.
Mr Johnson also left open the possibility of further restrictions. The prime minister has written to every household this weekend to warn that “things will get worse before they get better” with the crisis.
He hinted that tougher measures may have to be introduced to help the NHS cope. “We will not hesitate to go further if that is what the scientific and medical advice tells us we must do.”
While Mr Gove praised Britons for mostly following the lockdown measures set out last week, he urged citizens to use “common sense” on how long they should exercise. “For most people, a walk of up to an hour, a run of 30 mins or a cycle ride between that depending on their level of fitness is appropriate.”
He also apologised to a company that had offered to help supply ventilator parts to the NHS and had not received a response. “I’m very sorry if that company says that it didn’t get a reply, I’ll investigate as soon as I’ve stopped talking to you,” he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr.
“If that company wants to get in touch directly with me, we’ll investigate, because there have been some cases where people had hoped they might be able to help, but in fact the material that they produce has not met the NHS specifications, it’s not what’s required in order to save lives, but we have been following up every single lead presented to us.”
The government has been under fire in recent days for missing opportunities to acquire more medical ventilators through equipment suppliers. The Financial Times spoke to four companies who complained that offers to provide some of the additional machines needed to save the lives of people with acute respiratory difficulties were not taken up on time.
In a statement published on the Cabinet Office website on Saturday afternoon, the government rejected claims that it failed to take up offers to supply ventilators and said it had responded to all companies that had made offers of help.
It said: “Many distributors are offering us plans for future supply from overseas, but unfortunately many of these simply did not stand up to due diligence, where safety of our citizens is of paramount importance.
“However, the government has been successful in recent days buying directly from factories. Indeed we took a delivery from a manufacturer in an EU member state just this week. Of course we have bought from agents where that is not possible.”
Mr Gove said the NHS now had 8,000 ventilators, with another 8,000 due to be sourced from the UK and abroad. He also pointed out that another 10,000 may be supplied through a deal struck with several British companies, including Dyson. Ministers estimate around 30,000 ventilators will be required.