By Jamie Dettmer
Prime Minister Boris Johnson will keep Britain under a coronavirus lockdown until at least next month — to the frustration of some in his Cabinet, who behind the scenes are arguing that Downing Street now needs to prioritize the economy, which is heading for its worst recession in 300 years.
Cabinet ministers and some senior Conservatives have urged Johnson at least to release a timetable on easing the lockdown, with specific dates for different stages for lifting restrictions. Former Finance Minister Sajid Javid, a onetime rival for the leadership of the ruling Conservatives, said Friday that Downing Street must turn its attention to the economy now that the peak of coronavirus cases is thought to have been reached.
“We’ve got to find a way forward,” he told broadcaster Sky News. Javid said it was right to have “put public health first,” but now Johnson needed to pivot to focus on economic recovery. “We’re going to have to coexist with this virus for, I think, many months, if not potentially years. But we’ve got to find a way forward and that does mean you are relaxing, as much as you can,” he said.
Javid is the most prominent Conservative so far to call publicly for the economy to be restarted swiftly, but two of Johnson’s most senior Cabinet members, Michael Gove and Javid’s replacement as finance minister, Rishi Sunak, also have been making the case in Cabinet meetings for an unlocking of Britain, say Conservative sources.
For most of the week, Britain’s pro-Conservative newspapers have assumed Johnson would announce in the next few days the lifting of many restrictions. They have been highlighting the damage the lockdown is doing to the economy. On Thursday, the Bank of England warned that Britain is heading for its worst recession since 1706, when the country’s then-agriculture-based economy contracted by 15 percent because of poor weather and a disastrous harvest.
Johnson is scheduled Sunday to outline the incremental changes to the coronavirus restrictions he is prepared to order before the end of May. He will outline a longer-term overall exit strategy, too, but has told his Cabinet he will proceed with “maximum caution,” with only modest changes before June at the earliest.
His caution contrasts with the policies of some of Britain’s European neighbors, which, while approaching exits from their lockdowns cautiously, are easing their restrictions more quickly.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel — under pressure from the country’s regional authorities — announced Thursday that the goal of slowing the spread of coronavirus had been achieved, so all shops can be reopened as lockdown restrictions are eased. Germany’s Bundesliga football league has been given the green light to resume, and schools will gradually start reopening for the summer term.
Germany’s 16 federal states will oversee the timing of the easing in their jurisdictions and are empowered to operate an “emergency brake” if there are any new surges in infections.
Johnson’s caution comes after he was warned that viral outbreaks in Britain’s nursing homes and hospitals make significant easing before June risky. Johnson expressed “bitter regret” midweek in the House of Commons at the epidemic wave that has struck the country’s nursing homes. Some nursing home managers blame the government, saying a decision to speed up hospital discharges of the elderly triggered the outbreaks.
8,000 deaths a week
The Office for National Statistics has reported that the average number of deaths in care homes is approaching 8,000 a week. Martin Green, of the industry association Care England, told reporters that it had been “foolhardy” to discharge patients in a rush to nursing homes in a bid to free up hospital beds for an influx of coronavirus patients. “It was a major mistake. We should have moved nobody unless we were absolutely sure they were COVID-19 negative,” he said.
Some Conservatives say privately that Johnson’s own struggle with the coronavirus may be another factor in his determination to move more cautiously than they would prefer. Johnson was discharged from the hospital on April 11, a week after being admitted with a severe case of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus.
Government officials initially said he was moved from self-isolation in a Downing Street apartment to a nearby London hospital as a “precautionary move,” but it later transpired that doctors quickly feared for his life and transferred him into an intensive care unit a day after his arrival.
This past week, Johnson told The Sun newspaper that at one point it was “50-50” whether he would be put on a ventilator. Johnson described how he was given “liters and liters of oxygen” to keep him alive, and he credited his recovery to “wonderful, wonderful nursing.”
He said contingency plans had been readied in the event he didn’t survive. “It was a tough old moment; I won’t deny it,” he told the paper.
On Sunday ,Johnson will offer the public some relief from the strict lockdown by announcing people can take unlimited outdoor exercise. Churches and other places of worship are also likely to be allowed to open for private prayer, and garden centers are likely to be given approval to reopen. But households are unlikely to be allowed to mix, because officials fear that could lead to a spike in transmissions.
Britain became the first country in Europe to pass 30,000 coronavirus deaths. Communities Minister Robert Jenrick said these were “heartbreaking losses.”