Boris Johnson has contradicted his own chief scientific adviser by playing down the idea of another nationwide UK coronavirus lockdown, comparing that option to a nuclear deterrent for the government.
Speaking to the Sunday Telegraph, the prime minister said he did not think the UK would be in the same position as it was in March, when the first country-wide lockdown was imposed. “It is like a nuclear deterrent, I certainly don’t want to use it. And nor do I think we will be in that position again,” he said.
Patrick Vallance, the UK’s chief scientific adviser, said on Friday that another national lockdown was possible. “Come winter, the challenges will be very much greater and there is a risk that this could also need national measures as well,” he told MPs.
Downing Street believes the government will be able to tackle any recurrence at a local level as it has done in recent weeks — for example with a citywide lockdown in Leicester. Although some restrictions were eased in Leicester last week, the city remains constrained compared with the rest of the country — with pubs still closed and large gatherings banned.
While the death rate from Covid-19 has been falling since the spring, some government advisers remain worried that the R rate of transmission remains stubbornly high, at 0.7 to 0.9.
Ian Diamond, the UK’s national statistician, told Sky News on Sunday the infection rate was “basically flat” at the moment, at about 1,700 new cases a day.
“If we are super careful and follow the rules, we should expect there to be a relative flat line at the moment,” Sir Ian said. But he added that “over the autumn we will need to be ever-vigilant” to prevent a surge in cases.
Jenny Harries, the deputy chief medical officer, has warned that there could be a second wave of coronavirus in the UK.
Business leaders have also been warned by Number 10 to prepare for the possibility of another major outbreak later in the year.
But Mr Johnson said at a press conference on Friday that it was his “strong and sincere hope” to allow a return to normality from November “possibly in time for Christmas.”
The prime minister used that address to announce further relaxations of the lockdown — including an imminent dropping of the “work from home” guidance — in an announcement that was broadly welcomed by business groups that fear the worst recession in living memory.
The prime minister also announced new powers for local and national government to intervene rapidly to deal with localised surges in infection.
Councils will be able to close premises, cancel events or shut public outdoor spaces if there is a sudden increase in infections.
Likewise ministers will be able to impose fresh restrictions on certain areas — for example through local “stay at home orders”, cutting the maximum size of gatherings or restricting transport systems serving local areas.
The prime minister said in his interview on Sunday that a blanket shutdown could be avoided.
“It’s not just that we’re getting much better at spotting the disease and isolating it locally but we understand far more which groups it affects, how it works, how it’s transmitted, so the possibility of different types of segmentation, of enhanced shielding for particular groups, is now there.”
The Observer newspaper reported that Matt Hancock, the health secretary, was about to bow to pressure from local authorities and give them full access to the names and data of local people who had tested positive for Covid-19 — as well as people they had come into contact with.
Councils had complained that they were struggling to tackle local outbreaks because of a lack of access to “named patient data”.