David Davis MP warns the lack of a clear exit strategy could mean lasting damage on the UK economy.


As reported in the Mail on Sunday:

Traffic light system to get out of lockdown: Schools, hairdressers and clothes shops could reopen from May 11 while over 70s face a ‘red’ signal for a YEAR – as ministers push Boris Johnson to let the NHS ‘run hot’ by using spare capacity to speed up exit

Schools could start returning within three weeks under a ‘traffic light’ plan being pushed by senior ministers to ease lockdown misery – amid Cabinet splits over whether the government should risk more deaths from the disease to save the plunging economy.

The fledgling ‘exit strategy’ would see the country get back up in running in stages after May 11, with primary, GCSE pupils, and nurseries potentially going back part-time. 

Meanwhile, clothes shops and garden centres could be among the ‘non-essential’ stores given a ‘green light’ to reopen with precautions to protect customers. Rail services would be brought up to normal levels, with commuters probably urged to wear facemasks, and the NHS would resume carrying out non-urgent procedures.

A second ‘amber’ stage later in the summer would see more of the economy revived, with all employees told to go back to work and some social gatherings allowed.

However, it might not be until later in the year that pubs and restaurants can reopen and sporting events get up and running. And over-70s face a ‘red light’ for many months more, potentially having to wait for a vaccine before going back to normal life.

The proposals are gaining traction amid a mounting backlash at the lack of a clear plan – and as another 596 UK coronavirus deaths were announced, with the grim tally marking the lowest daily rise for two weeks. The overall number of fatalities now stands at 16,060, and cases were up by 5,850 to 120,067.

Senior ministers are divided between those who want to ‘run hot’, using apparent spare capacity in the NHS to relax social distancing soon, and those who fear acting too early will allow the disease to run rampant, according to the Sunday Times.

After concerns about drift at the heart of power, Boris Johnson is gearing up to take back the reins of government, making calls to ministers from Chequers where he is recuperating from his own health scare with the disease.

Cabinet minister MIchael Gove tried to dampen down frenzied speculation over loosening of restrictions this morning, saying while it was ‘entirely understandable’ people want to know the way out it was too early to make such decisions.

Asked if the ‘traffic light’ system was the government’s ‘exit strategy’, Mr Gove told Sky News: ‘No it’s not. It is the case that we are looking at all the evidence. But we have  set some tests that must be passed before we can even think about easing the lockdown.’

Although he stressed no decisions had been taken, Mr Gove did hint at the shape of an easing, suggesting pubs and other parts of the hospitality industry will be ‘among the last’ to come back.

Anger has been rising at the sense of drift in government with the PM recuperating at Chequers.

It emerged on Friday that Cabinet has asked scientists and medical experts to present options for lifting the lockdown in a fortnight’s time – suggesting there will be no formal plan unveiled before then.

But some senior Tories, along with Labour leader Keir Starmer, have been demanding quicker decisions amid mounting accusations that handling of the pandemic has been bungled. Shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth today accused ministers of ‘treating people like children’ by refusing to set out options.

Insiders pointed out that despite the strain on the NHS there were 2,700 critical care beds empty last week, and scientists now believe the reproduction rate – the ‘R’ number – for the virus has dropped below one in the community, meaning its prevalence is shrinking.  

Ministers such as Chancellor Rishi Sunak are increasingly alarmed at the hit to the economy, with the OBR watchdog warning GDP could plummet by a third with millions of jobs lost. 

However, Health Secretary Matt Hancock is believed to be among the senior figures anxious about releasing the handbrake before the government is certain there will not be a devastating second peak in cases.  

‘The debate is now between people who think we should suppress the virus completely and those who think we should run things quite hot, use the spare capacity in the NHS and aim to keep the R number just below one,’ one official told the Sunday Times.

Another senior insider said: ‘You have to be clear. Running hot means more people are likely to die. That’s the decision the prime minister will have to take.’

Mr Gove said this morning that while coronavirus cases seemed to have ‘flattened out’ scientists were not yet confident the peak was past and it was safe to make changes. ‘It is entirely understandable, of course, that there should be a public debate about how we approach these difficult choices,’ he said.

‘But the most important thing to do is to make sure that we proceed in a way that is guided by science.’ 

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson tweeted that ‘no decision has been made on when we will reopen schools’.

‘I can reassure schools and parents that they will only reopen when the scientific advice indicates it is the right time to do so,’ he added.

There have been estimates that the economic hit from the lockdown, and the austerity that will follow the government’s huge bailouts for business and workers, could cause tens of thousands of deaths and leave more than a million people with long-term health conditions.

Infectious disease expert Sir Jeremy Farrar, a member of the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said the lockdown ‘can’t go on for much longer’ as it was ‘damaging all of our lives’.

He suggested measures could begin to be lifted within around three or four weeks’ time if the numbers of infections and hospital patients drop ‘dramatically’.

The director of the Wellcome Trust told Sky News: ‘I would hope they will get there in three-four weeks time because it’s clear that the lockdown can’t go on for much longer.

‘The damage it’s doing to all of our health and wellbeing, our mental health… the lockdown is damaging business and ultimately that’s damaging all of our lives.

‘So the lockdowns cannot go on forever, we must lift them as soon as we can but we can’t lift them too soon and we can’t just make arbitrary dates.

‘It has to be driven, I’m afraid, by the data.’

Sir Jeremy added that he thought that the UK was past the peak of the ‘first wave’ of the virus – but warned it will come back.

‘We should not see this as a discrete episode. I think the probability of what we must be planning for is that there would be further waves of this in the future.

‘But for this first wave I think the number of new infections stabilised maybe a week or two ago, the number of hospitalisations maybe a week or so ago… we’re probably just past the peak in many parts of this country, as is true in many parts of the world.’

Angel Gurria, head of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, told the Marr show that the damage to the economy was likely to be short term, and government were doing the right thing by taking drastic action to control outbreaks.

He warned that easing of the lockdown would be ‘trial and error’. ‘What I see also is perhaps a stop and go process, where you have stable numbers on the contagion and hospital admissions and even deaths and the you start to open gradually and then there may be a return to higher numbers and then you stop again,’ he said.

‘This is not a science. It’s going to be mainly trial and error.

‘It’s perfectly legitimate that people want to re-open, of course we all want to go out, we all want to work, we all want to do what we do every day. However, the cost can be very high if you get it wrong, so let’s err on the side of prudence.’

Sources told MailOnline last week that Mr Johnson is keen to return to Downing Street this week, as Parliament returns from Easter recess, but pregnant fiancee Carrie Symond and doctors are concerned that will be too soon.  

He has been issuing orders to First Secretary of State Dominic Raab, who is deputising for him.

Mr Johnson also had a three-hour meeting with the Foreign Secretary on Friday along with Chief Adviser Dominic Cummings and Communication Director Lee Cain, according to The Sunday Telegraph.

Mr Gove fuelled hopes of an early return for the PM, saying he is in ‘cheerful spirits’ and ‘absolutely on top of things’. ‘The Prime Minister is recovering well,’ Mr Gove said. ‘And, he had the opportunity to talk to Dominic Raab, his deputy, the First Secretary of State, on Friday.

‘And the Prime Minister’s instructions to the rest of us in Government were communicated by the First Secretary of State when we had a conference call yesterday morning.’

It comes after a further 888 coronavirus deaths were announced in the UK yesterday, bringing the total to 15,464. 

It is not yet known when the Prime Minister will return fully to his duties but a source told the Sun: ‘It wouldn’t surprise me if he was back before the end of next week. Everyone knows he is the key to selling the end of the lockdown to voters.

‘This is the biggest decision he will ever take and he knows the implications are vast for millions of families. There is no way he will be on the sidelines.’

A spokesman for Number 10 said: ‘The Prime Minister has been at the helm of the response to this, providing leadership during this hugely challenging period for the whole nation.’

However, Mr Johnson will return to a rising backlash about his handling of the initial stages of the crisis. 

He personally is facing criticism for failing to attend five Cobra meetings on the disease, with claims the Government missed a series of opportunities to try and lessen the impact in February and March.

An adviser to Downing Street told the Sunday Times: ‘There’s no way you’re at war if your PM isn’t there.

‘And what you learn about Boris was he didn’t chair any meetings. He liked his country breaks. He didn’t work weekends.

‘It was like working for an old-fashioned chief executive in a local authority 20 years ago. There was a real sense that he didn’t do urgent crisis planning. It was exactly like people feared he would be.’ 

The accusations drew a sharp reaction from Mr Gove, who branded the allegations that the PM neglected the dangers ‘grotesque’.

He admitted that the UK had sent a consignment of PPE to China early in the crisis, but insisted it had not been from the core pandemic stockpile and far more had been received back.

‘The PPE wasn’t from our pandemic stock,’ he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr show. ‘We’ve received far more from China than we have given.’

In a fresh embarrassment, it has emerged that a shipment of PPE from Turkey will not arrive today, as Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick boasted last night. 

Mr Jenrick revealed the ‘very large consignment’ – crucially including 400,000 gowns – was on its way after fury that NHS staff are being told to reuse protective equipment.  

However, the 84-tonne load is not expected to be here today, with logistical problems on the Turkish side being blamed.

A No10 spokesman said: ‘The Government has been working day and night to battle against coronavirus, delivering a strategy designed at all times to protect our NHS and save lives.

‘Guided by medical and scientific expertise, we have implemented specific measures to reduce the spread of the virus at the time they will be most effective.

‘Our response has ensured that the NHS has been given all the support in needs to ensure everyone requiring treatment has received it, as well as providing protection to businesses and reassurance to workers.’

However, Dr Chaand Nagpaul, chairman of the British Medical Association council, underlined fears that the speed of the reaction has left NHS staff lacking PPE. 

He told Sky News the BMA had written to the Government two weeks ago calling for a massive ramping up of the manufacturing of protective equipment.

He said large numbers of contacts were willing to produce equipment and names of around 70 of them were passed on to the Government.

But Dr Nagpaul said the contacts ‘hit a brick wall’ after they weren’t followed up.

He told Sky News: ‘We made it clear weeks ago that we need to do something about the likelihood of a lack of protective equipment.

He added: ‘Even more stressful now is that doctors and other healthcare workers are treating their own colleagues in intensive care on ventilators and tragically see some of them not survive.

‘This is extremely emotionally taxing and it’s showing its toll on the healthcare workforce.’

As ministers scramble to get a grip, former Olympics Chief Lord Deighton has been drafted in to lead a task force to produce the necessary PPE for distribution around the country.

The PM previously described Lord Deighton as being a ‘superb’ executive after he helped deliver the 2012 Olympics while Mr Johnson was London mayor.

Speaking about his appointment, Lord Deighton said: ‘Countries around the world face unprecedented demand for personal protective equipment and this necessitates an equally unprecedented domestic manufacturing response.

‘This effort calls for exceptional teamwork and I am confident that we, together, will rise to this challenge.’

Michael Gove is also in the process of setting up a new unit to advise senior ministers on the widespread economic and social impacts of lockdown to help guide an eventual exit strategy.   

It comes after a grand coalition of the country’s most senior political and business figures called on the Government to lift the shutters from Britain’s deserted high streets and map a route out of the crippling Covid-19 lockdown.

Former Cabinet Ministers David Davis and Iain Duncan Smith have joined forces with Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer and City bosses to warn the lack of a clear exit strategy could wreak lasting damage on the UK economy.

Officials are currently drawing up a three-stage ‘traffic light’ plan which would see some businesses such as DIY stores and garden centres reopen, and some children return to school, as early as the week beginning May 11. 

There had been growing concern that Boris Johnson’s absence from Downing Street was hampering exit plans despite signs that the outbreak is passing its peak.

In response to claims of a power vacuum, No 10 said that a ‘quad’ of key ministers – Health Secretary Matt Hancock, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove – met every weekday at 6pm to decide strategy. 

Yesterday, Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick told the daily press conference that the Prime Minister Mr Johnson was ‘resting and recuperating at Chequers’ and ‘taking his doctor’s advice’.

Mr Jenrick added: ‘He has had some contact with ministers but mostly with his private office here at Downing Street.’ 

The deaths of a further 888 people were announced in the UK yesterday, bringing the total to 15,464, but the number of hospital patients with the virus fell by 952 to 17,759, raising hopes that infection rates have reached a plateau.

Under the first, ‘red’, phase of the ‘traffic light’ plan, businesses such as garden centres and hairdressers could reopen, subject to strict social distancing arrangements.

Around a fifth of children would also go back to school as part of a phased return, although officials are divided over whether to give priority based on year groups, the occupation of parents or by region.

The ‘amber’ phase – probably in June or July – would see restaurants open on condition that tables were far enough apart. Most children and office workers would also leave isolation.

The timing of the ‘green’ phase – a full return to normality including pubs opening and large events – would depend on the development of widespread testing for Covid-19 and consistently low levels of infections and deaths.

The elderly and vulnerable would remain ‘shielded’ until a vaccine is available, possibly for up to 18 months from now.

But to the frustration of ‘hawks’ led by Mr Sunak, Cabinet ‘doves’ headed by Mr Hancock are reluctant to signal an end to lockdown while infection rates are still high.

Writing in The Mail on Sunday today, former Brexit Secretary Mr Davis says it is ‘now essential we take the brakes off the economy’.

His remarks follow dire predictions that the UK economy could contract by as much as a third if the full lockdown lasts three months, leading to soaring unemployment and bankruptcies. Mr Davis’s views were echoed by ex-Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith who urged Ministers to stop ‘patronising’ the public and explain their plans to restart the economy and that ‘there is life after lockdown.’

Meanwhile, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer – also writing in this newspaper – says: ‘Now is not the time to lift restrictions. But we do need to have clarity about what is going to happen next.’ The politicians were joined by retail bosses including Julian Dunkerton, the founder of clothing label Superdry, and economist Gerard Lyons, who said: ‘After the current three-week extension, there should be a gradual unlocking of the economy’.

A Cabinet Office spokesman said: ‘At all times we have been guided by scientific advice. The current advice is that relaxing any measures could risk damage to public health, our economy, and the sacrifices we have all made. Only when the evidence suggests it is safe to do so will we adjust these measures.’