The United Kingodm government on Thursday announced that its current social distancing measures will remain in place for at least another three weeks, going up to May 7, as the country's death toll from the coronavirus pandemic rose by a further 861 to hit 13,729.
UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, who is standing in for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson as he recuperates after testing positive for coronavirus, chaired a crucial meeting of the Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms (Cobra) to announce the Cabinet's decision to extend the lockdown during the daily Downing Street briefing.
"Any change to our social distancing measures now would risk a significant increase in the spread of the virus," said Raab, who is also the UK's First Secretary of State.
“Your efforts are paying off. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. To lift measures now would undo the progress we've made to date and, as a result, would require an even longer period of the more restrictive social distancing measures,” he said.
It was incumbent upon the government by law this week to review the impact of the lockdown, imposed for an initial 21-day period by Johnson on March 23, based on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies assessment.
"There are indications that the measures we have put in place have been successful in slowing down the spread of this virus. But SAGE also say that is a mixed and inconsistent picture and, in some settings, infections are still likely to be increasing," noted Raab.
The minister said that relaxing rules could cause a "second peak", which would risk increasing deaths "substantially" and also prolong the economic fallout from the outbreak.
"We've come too far, we've lost too many loved ones. Now is not the time to give coronavirus a second chance," he said, adding that he is mindful of the hardships the lockdown was causing for the British public but the measures were absolutely essential.
The UK's lockdown, which involves strict stay at home measures with movement allowed for limited urgent purposes only if “absolutely necessary” and for one form of daily exercise, came into force on March 23 after a televised address by Boris Johnson.
Under the emergency measures passed for it, ministers are required by law to assess whether the rules are working every three weeks, based on expert scientific advice.
Ministers had already indicated in their daily Downing Street briefings this week that an extension to the lockdown measures is inevitable.
"We can see that we're reaching a peak, that is good news, but we can see that the numbers are not yet coming down, therefore we can't make a change," said UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock in reference to the Cabinet's extension plans.
"If we just released all the measures now then this virus would run rampant," he said.
Hancock joined other Cabinet members and the first ministers of the devolved governments of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales on Thursday as they discussed the further lockdown measures.
Scotland and Wales have already indicated that their social distancing norms will not be lifted yet and Northern Ireland has extended its lockdown until May 9.
The Opposition Labour Party has offered its support to an extension but is pressing the government on tabling an exit strategy from the severe policies and lay out a plan for how the country would eventually come out of it.
In a letter to Raab, Labour leader Keir Starmer stressed that while millions of Britons are following the rules, they need some clear idea on what to expect in the future.
He has urged the government to publish its lockdown strategy because "transparency is the best way" to maintain public trust.
"If we can get a consensus that this is the right strategy going forward, I think that will give trust to the public as well," he said.