Ministers faced fresh calls to publish their exit strategy for the coronavirus lockdown today.
The former bank of England Governor Lord King said that a ‘trial and error’ reopening of schools and some businesses should be considered to help re-start the economy.
The crossbench peer called for the Government to be clear about the obstacles it faces in lifting the current showdown, saying: ‘I don’t think it’s sensible to just tell us all to stay indoors.’
Meanwhile Labour urged the Government to set out what it plans to do in the next 12 months amid conflicting fears it could take that long for a vaccine to be ready for mass use.
The new moves came as ministers continued to row behind closed doors over the exit strategy and its effect on the economy.
The Cabinet has divided into hawks who want to lift the lockdown in a few weeks and doves who want to delay until late May at the earliest.
Lord King, who led the Bank of England between 2003 and 2013, told Sky’s Ridge on Sunday: He explained: ‘If we can allow schools, young people, some businesses to start up, while maintaining social distancing then I think we achieve our objectives, but it’s bound to be a process of trial and error.’
The former bank of England Governor Lord King said that a ‘trial and error’ reopening of schools and some businesses should be considered to help re-start the economy
Labour leader Keir Starmer urged the Government to set out what it plans to do in the next 12 months amid conflicting fears it could take that long for a vaccine to be ready for mass use
The independent crossbench peer said the Government ‘can rely on the common sense of people’ and should outline the challenges faced given the lack of a vaccine and treatment.
Lord King went on: ‘We do run a risk that there’ll be more infections spreading.
‘It’s sensible to try this amongst those groups of the population that are not apparently as adversely affected as the elderly and those with existing health conditions, in order to start a process of trial and error.
‘Because to maintain the lockdown has its own costs, not just economic costs but costs in terms of the health and wellbeing of those affected by it.’
Sir Keir, who has been pushing the Government since last week to tell the British public how the lockdown might end, said it needed to go further and map out the year ahead.
He told Ridge: ‘We all know that a vaccine, which is the sort of end exit strategy, is probably 12 months away so the question is, what happens in that intervening 12 months?
‘The reason this matters is that firstly, we need to have the trust of the public so they know what is going to happen in these 12 months.
‘People are really frightened, frightened for their health, frightened for the economy, so they need to know but also, we need to plan.
If the plan is mass community testing … that tells us that we need to ramp up testing far beyond what the government is already planning, if that’s the right route, so I’m pushing the government on this because what I don’t want to happen is that in a number of weeks we arrive at the situation and we haven’t got a clear plan.’
Splits within the Cabinet over when to lift the lockdown were laid bare last night.
Leading the hawks is Chancellor Rishi Sunak, who The Mail on Sunday revealed last week had made ‘robust’ representations to ‘doveish’ Health Secretary Matt Hancock that the economy will suffer irreparable damage unless a path is mapped now for a swift return to normal activity.
While Mr Hancock believes the protection of the NHS should be the overarching priority, the hawks – who are understood to include Home Secretary Priti Patel, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson and Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey – have been alarmed by the problems stacking up in their departments.
Ms Patel is concerned by an increase of nearly one third in reports of domestic violence.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak (pictured) is leading the group of Cabinet hawks who want to ease lockdown restrictions within weeks, fearing its impact on the economy
Health Secretary Matt Hancock (pictured) believes the survival of the NHS is the top priority
The row comes as the UK recorded 917 deaths on Saturday, as the national toll nears 10,000
Mr Williamson is alarmed by the effect on children of a protracted period out of the classroom, and Ms Coffey’s welfare bill has exploded with the surge in benefit claimants.
Ministers are also worried about the hidden costs of the lockdown, such as a rise in suicides due to the mental strain of isolation, or the impact of missed cancer diagnoses.
They have cited anecdotal evidence that heart attack deaths in some areas have increased because Covid-19 patients are being given priority over people calling 999 with chest pains, which NHS England disputes.
Priti Patel (pictured) is concerned by an increase in reports of domestic violence
Online school to open within weeks
By Harriet Dennys and Glen Owen for The Mail on Sunday
Ministers are planning to set up an ‘online school’ later this month ahead of a hoped-for ‘phased return’ to classrooms before the summer holidays.
The move by Education Secretary Gavin Williamson to set up a nationwide internet school comes amid fears that children without parental support or online resources will fall behind if the lockdown continues for several months.
Sources say that although the project does not yet have an official launch date, the plans are ‘well advanced’.
Mr Williamson is keen for children to return to school ‘as soon as it is safe and practical’, but No10 has said that it is unlikely to happen after the Easter holidays.
Under a phased return, could start to return to school after the summer half term, with different age groups returning over a period of weeks.
One plan under discussion would be to start with Years 10 and 12, who will be taking exams in a year’s time. Alternative ideas include pupils returning in areas of the country where Covid-19 infection levels are low – or expanding the definition of ‘key workers’ to allow more children access to their classrooms.
Referrals under the Two Week Wait system in which urgent GP referrals for suspected cancers are seen within a fortnight are thought to have fallen last month by up to 70 per cent in England.
Health bodies are so concerned that a public health campaign is expected next week to spread the message: ‘The NHS is still open for business.’
While some hawks hoped the lockdown could be ended by VE Day on May 8, the doves have cited the first day after the May 26 bank holiday as the earliest date for a phased return to the workplace.
According to one report, Boris Johnson is hawkish about the lockdown, and has been taken aback by how rigorously it has been observed by the public.
The Government has denied claims that Whitehall officials have calculated that up to 150,000 lives could be lost as a result of the lockdown – worse than all but the bleakest projection if social distancing measures had not been introduced.
Michael Gove has been described by colleagues as ‘doveish’ on the lockdown.
A source close to the Minister for the Cabinet Office said: ‘He is definitely keen on a clear path out of the lockdown, but at the right time.’
A source close to Mr Hancock said: ‘Lifting the lockdown depends on what the evidence shows us. We are nowhere near putting dates on things like that.’
Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey (pictured) is alarmed by surge in benefits claims
The Cabinet is split between hawks like Gavin Williamson (left) and Michael Gove (right)