U.K. Likely to Extend Lockdown as Johnson Condition Improves

Joe Mayes, Alex Morales and Kitty Donaldson

(Bloomberg) --

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s condition is improving after a third night in critical care as officials draw up plans to extend the lockdown imposed to stem the spread of coronavirus.

“What we absolutely need to do now is keep bearing down on the rate of transmission, which will mean continuing with social-distancing measures,” Downing Street spokesman James Slack told reporters on a conference call on Thursday. “We’re at a critical point in this and that’s certainly the case as we approach the Easter bank holiday weekend.”

With Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab temporarily in charge, the country is heading into the worst of the crisis without its elected leader and with a decision looming next week on whether to extend or lift restrictions that have seen people required to stay home and shops, pubs and restaurants closed.

The latest figures show the death toll from the virus is still climbing, with a record 938 people succumbing in the 24 hours to 5 p.m. on Tuesday, bringing the U.K. total to 7,097.

While there are early signs the lockdown has helped to slow the spread of the disease, it has also brought economic activity to a near halt and inflicted financial hardship on millions. The government said on Thursday it has received 1.2 million new claims for Universal Credit welfare payments since March 16.

Raab is scheduled to chair a meeting of top ministers and officials on Thursday afternoon to discuss the process for deciding on whether to change the rules.

Earlier, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said she expects the lockdown will be extended. Asked if he disagreed with that assessment, Slack replied that he hadn’t contradicted her.

Longer Lockdown

It’s likely the curbs will be kept for weeks longer as ministers wait for infections to peak, people familiar with the matter said. There’s not enough evidence yet to justify relaxing the rules, though discussions are ongoing and no formal decision has yet been taken, according to the people, who asked not to be identified.

“We are just starting to see this strategy working,” Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden told LBC Radio on Thursday. “That would all point towards that staying in place, but we did say we would review it in three weeks and that’s what we’re doing.”

Scientists predict the U.K. will be headed into the peak of the outbreak over the next week, at the very moment it has a power vacuum in Johnson’s absence. The government is already battling criticism of its handling of the crisis, with hospitals short of protective equipment and testing rates lagging behind other countries.

Entering Peak

With signs of the pandemic turning the corner in Spain and Italy, Europe’s hardest-hit countries, Britain is moving into its most critical phase, with deaths still rising.

On Wednesday, Deputy Chief Scientific Adviser Angela McLean said the number of new cases is “not accelerating out of control,” which is positive for the National Health Service.

“The rate at which this is rising is definitely getting slower,” McLean said. “It looks like we’re beginning to get to a flat curve” on hospitalizations, she said.

Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance said this week there were signs for optimism in the numbers for new infections, which were stable. There would need to be more data, though, before the authorities could make any decision to end a lockdown that’s crippling the economy.

“While it’s appropriate to start thinking about an exit strategy, it’s likely that restrictions and measures will be in place for some time to come,” Scotland’s Sturgeon told lawmakers on a conference call on Thursday.

Johnson has been in St Thomas’ Hospital in London since Sunday after struggling to shake off virus symptoms, including a cough and a fever. He’s been receiving standard treatment with oxygen and has not needed a ventilator, Slack said. The premier “continues to improve” but remains in intensive care, he said.

(Adds comment from Johnson’s spokesman in third paragraph)

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