Matt Hancock today lost his cool as he was grilled over the UK government’s failure to set out its strategy for easing the coronavirus lockdown.
Calls for Downing Street to be frank with the nation have increased after Nicola Sturgeon set out her own plan for Scotland yesterday while Wales is doing the same today and Northern Ireland has signalled it could follow suit.
Mr Hancock and other senior ministers have so far refused to budge on the issue, insisting the focus must remain on slowing the spread of the disease.
But furious Tory MPs have demanded the government ‘bite the bullet’ and set out its strategy to give businesses hope that measures could soon be lifted.
The Health Secretary was asked this morning during a bruising interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme why the UK government is refusing to spell out how it will ease restrictions.
But he claimed ministers had ‘released a framework’ as he referred to the government’s five tests which need to be met before lockdown can be reduced. Those tests include a guarantee there will not be second peak of the outbreak.
But presenter Mishal Husain interrupted and told the Health Secretary: ‘You know that is different. We know about your five tests.’
An angry Mr Hancock then hit back and said: ‘It is not different. It is not different because if you read the Scottish document it is essentially a reiteration broadly of those five tests.’
Mr Hancock had lost his cool earlier in the crisis on April 16 on the same subject of lockdown when he insisted the public could not be trusted with an exit strategy because they might stop obeying lockdown rules.
Senior Conservative figures believe there is currently ‘no leadership’ without Boris Johnson who is believed to be targeting a return to work on Monday next week.
The Prime Minister was released from hospital on April 12 following his intensive care battle with coronavirus and he has been recuperating at Chequers since then.
Allies believe the premier is ‘determined’ to return after the weekend and those theories were boosted this morning as Mr Hancock said the PM is on ‘very good form and is clearly recovering’.
Meanwhile, last night Donald Trump said Mr Johnson had been ‘sharp and energetic’ in a phone call on Tuesday.
Matt Hancock, pictured in Downing Street today, has refused to set out how the UK government could ease the coronavirus lockdown
Boris Johnson, pictured in Number 10 on March 25, is believed to be targeting a return to work next Monday
Donald Trump, pictured in the White House yesterday, said Mr Johnson had been ‘sharp and energetic’ during a phone call earlier this week
Mr Hancock said this morning the easing of restrictions would largely be determined by how quickly new cases of coronavirus fall.
He said: ‘It depends on how fast the number of new cases falls now that we are at the peak… and if as and when they do then the speed with which the number of new cases reduces frankly will determine how long we need to keep the measures on. That is as yet unknowable.’
He said he did not have a ‘problem in principle’ with Ms Sturgeon setting out her own plan but he added ‘it is too soon to make the changes’ as he also made the case for the UK to continue to act ‘as one’.
‘My preference is that we work together as one country,’ he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
‘I think that is where the public has been during this but I also respect the responsibilities that my devolved colleagues have got.’
The issue of when the UK’s lockdown can be lifted is now largely dominating the coronavirus crisis with the government facing increasing political pressure to set out its plans.
Former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith told The Guardian: ‘The UK government now needs to recognise that the time is now. They need to bite the bullet and do it.’
He told The Times: ‘The government needs now to explain to the British public that they are planning for the time when we come out of lockdown.
‘We must trust the British public to understand how this will happen. The Scottish administration is right. I want the UK government to be doing the same.’
Former Brexit secretary David Davis said it would be ‘entirely sensible’ for the government to set out ‘what can and can’t be done’.
There is increasing disquiet among members of the influential 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers about the lack of a UK-wide lockdown plan.
A senior committee source said: ‘Our problem we’ve got is there is no leadership at the moment. You’re getting factions because Boris is not back.
‘The majority of the Cabinet are in favour of getting a plan going.’
Tory MPs hope the return of Mr Johnson to the fold, potentially on Monday next week, will help get the government back on track.
One source told The Telegraph: ‘He’s not the sort of person who is very good at doing nothing.
‘In truth, he has been working pretty much full time for the past week.
‘The fact that he had a telephone audience with the Queen on Wednesday night shows you that he considers himself to be fit for duty.’
The latest Downing Street statistics show the number of people in hospital with coronavirus continues to fall in London and other parts of the country
The number of coronavirus patients in critical care in hospitals across the UK has also been falling
Nicola Sturgeon’s plan to get out of lockdown
The Scottish First Minister today set out some of the restrictions which could soon be lifted or modified north of the border.
Businesses: Certain businesses could be allowed to reopen but only if they can guarantee that social distancing will be adhered to.
Schools: Ms Sturgeon said reopening schools will be considered but she warned it could require classrooms to be redesigned to make sure pupils are kept at least two metres apart. She also suggested it may mean not all children attending at the same time.
Leaving the house: Ms Sturgeon suggested limited outdoor activities could be restarted but indoor ones would likely have to wait.
Geographical differences: Different restrictions in different areas could be lifted at different times depending on the spread of the disease but a consistent approach is preferable.
Large gatherings: Gigs and sporting events are ‘likely to be off for some months to come’.
Shielding: Greater protections for the vulnerable ‘almost certainly be required for the foreseeable future’.
Mr Hancock today suggested Mr Johnson is in good shape and firmly on the road to recovery.
He told Sky News: ‘I’m sure he’ll come back as soon as his doctors recommend it.
‘That decision is for the prime minister in consultation with his doctors. I spoke to him yesterday, he’s on very good form and is clearly recovering.’
He later told the BBC the PM is ‘on the mend in a big way’.
Mr Trump told a press conference in Washington last night: ‘He [Boris] called me a few days ago. I will tell you he sounded incredible.
‘I was actually surprised. I thought he’d be like “Oh Donald, how are you?”. He was ready to go. I’m very surprised to tell you this. It’s like the old Boris, tremendous energy, tremendous drive.
‘I was very surprised because he called me, almost you know, pretty close to when he got out of the hospital.
‘I think he’s doing great, I think he’s doing great. He was so sharp and energetic, pretty incredible, he’s an incredible guy.’
Ms Sturgeon yesterday published her own blueprint for how to lift restrictions as she said businesses could reopen if they strictly adhere to social distancing measures.
She also said schools could return, potentially with redesigned classrooms so that pupils can stay at least two metres away from each other.
Meanwhile, Arlene Foster, the First Minister of Northern Ireland, said on Wednesday night the country could ease restrictions before the rest of the UK.
Today she made clear she hopes the four Home Nations will continue to make decisions together.
But she said that does not preclude different countries from taking different actions at different times.
She said: ‘We have been working together as four nations, continuing to decide what is the best way forward.
‘But the two positions are not mutually exclusive because the point I was making is that we may decide as the United Kingdom on criteria which will mean that different regions will move at different times.’
Many of the powers relating to the coronavirus lockdown are devolved which means Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland could take different paths to England if they wanted to.
The moves by the devolved administrations prompted renewed pressure on the UK government to set out its end-of-lockdown plan but Mr Hancock refused to do so at yesterday’s daily coronavirus press conference.
He said the government’s tests for lifting the draconian curbs were yet to be met and insisted one of the reasons why the UK has been able to slow the spread of the killer disease is the ‘clarity on that message’ of the need to flatten the curve and for people to stay at home.
He said there is still an ‘awful lot of work that still needs to be done’ before the government can deviate from that message and start talking about easing measures.
But ministers believe that stance will be increasingly difficult to stick to now that devolved governments are setting out their own road maps for getting back to some semblance of normal life.
One minister said: ‘It’s a very difficult position to defend, which is why I suspect that Nicola Sturgeon has gone ahead of them to steal a march.
‘The sensible thing to do is be honest about it. People are not kids.’
The Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford is today announcing how Wales could exit from lockdown.
He is setting out seven key questions which will determine when stay-at-home restrictions could be relaxed.
Reminding the public that current measures ‘are staying in place’, Mr Drakeford will also introduce new regulations to prevent the spread of coronavirus, while adding concessions for people with health problems and disabilities.
The seven questions will include whether easing would have an effect on the spread of the disease, if there would be a low risk of infection, and whether any relaxed restrictions could be enforced.
Other questions focus on whether easing restrictions could be reversed if needed, whether there would be a positive economic benefit, a positive effect on well being, and a positive impact on inequality.
Announcing a series of changes, Mr Drakeford said: ‘The changes we are introducing supplement the rules already in force but they respond to some challenges being faced in parts of the country and by families throughout Wales.
‘Our message has not changed – anyone can get coronavirus, anyone can spread it. So please, stay home, protect the NHS, and save lives.’
Changes which will come into force as of tomorrow will include applying the two metre social distancing rule on premises used for ‘click and collect’ services and extending it to cafes in hospitals, canteens in schools, prisons and for use by the armed forces.
The Welsh Government has also asked Wales’ four police forces to advise them whether existing requirements to prevent people from travelling to second homes need to be strengthened.
Source: Daily Mail – Articles