LONDON (AP) — The U.K. government was poised Thursday to extend a nationwide lockdown for several more weeks, as health officials said Britain’s coronavirus outbreak — one of Europe’s worst — is nearing its peak.
Authorities were expected to announce an extension of restrictions on movement and business activity after a meeting of the government’s crisis committee, COBRA.
Before the official announcement, British Health Secretary Matt Hancock said “it is too early to make a change” to the lockdown the government ordered on March 23 to slow the spread of the virus. Schools, pubs, restaurants and most shops are closed, and most people are allowed to leave home only for essential errands or exercise.
“I understand those who are calling for an end to the lockdown or some kind of exit strategy to start now, but I think it’s just too early for that,” Hancock said.
As of Wednesday, 12,868 people had died in U.K. hospitals after testing positive for coronavirus. The figure does not include deaths in nursing homes and other settings.
Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said the U.K. is “probably reaching the peak overall” but that officials are “not yet at the point where we can say confidently and safely this is now past the peak.”
For now, extending the lockdown has wide public and political support. But as other European countries cautiously ease their restrictions, Britain’s Conservative government faces pressure to explain when and how the country will reopen.
“We agree the measures need to remain in place, but to maintain morale and hope, people need a sense of what comes next,” said Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labour Party. “The silent pressures on communities across the country cannot be underestimated.”
The government’s response to the pandemic has been complicated by the absence of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has not returned to work after spending a week in a London hospital being treated for COVID-19, including three nights in intensive care.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab is filling in while Johnson recuperates, but the government is wary of making big decisions until the prime minister can participate.
Critics have accused U.K. officials of unnecessary secrecy. The government’s decisions on virus measures are based on advice from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, a panel of scientists whose full membership list has not been made public. The government cited security reasons for not divulging the information.
One of the group’s members, epidemiologist Neil Ferguson, said “significant” social distancing will have to be maintained until there is a vaccine for the coronavirus — a development that could be over a year away.
He said easing restrictions would also require vastly expanded testing for the virus, so that people who are ill, and their contacts, can be isolated or quarantined.
Ferguson said that without broad testing, “our estimates show we have relatively little leeway.”
“If we relax measures too much then we’ll see a resurgence of transmission,” he told the BBC. “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.”
Britain’s government has been criticized over many aspects of its response to the pandemic, including a limited amount of testing and delays in getting protective equipment to medics and care workers.
The government insists it is rectifying those mistakes. It has vowed to conduct 100,000 tests a day by the end of April — a more than five-fold increase on current rates.
The government also is accused of neglecting staff nursing home employees and residents. Virus-related deaths at nursing homes or any setting other than a hospital are not included in the government’s daily tallies, although the total number is released separately once a week.
In the latest release, 10% of all deaths involving COVID-19 occurred outside hospitals, a figure that is expected to grow.
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