A grand coalition of the country’s most senior political and business figures today calls 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.
It comes as officials are 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 is growing concern that Boris Johnson’s absence from Downing Street is hampering exit plans, despite signs that the outbreak is passing its peak.
First Secretary of State Dominic Raab speaking at the daily coronavirus news conference at 10 Downing Street in London on Thursday. There is growing concern that Boris Johnson’s absence from Downing Street is hampering exit plans
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. The recuperating Prime Minister is not expected to return to No 10 for at least a fortnight, with sources saying he is being allowed to rest without the stress of day-to-day responsibility.
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.
Conservative MP David Davis during a second reading of the Coronavirus Bill in the House of Commons. He has joined forces with Sir Keir Starmer and City bosses to warn the lack of a clear exit strategy could wreak lasting economic damage
Labour leader Sir Starmer and his wife Victoria take part in the national ‘Clap our Carers’ campaign to show thanks for the work of Britain’s NHS workers and frontline medical staff around the country as they battle the coronavirus pandemic
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’.
People shopping at The Range in Plymouth. 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
In other developments:
- The Government appointed Tory peer Lord Deighton as a ‘Covid Tsar’ to tackle shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline NHS staff; Ministers said 84 tons of kit, including 400,000 gowns, would arrive from Turkey today;
- The BBC made a humiliating climbdown after wrongly reporting that an NHS Trust boss desperate for PPE had called seeking a number for Burberry;
- Local Government Secretary Robert Jenrick ordered councils to keep parks open, as local authorities were promised an extra £1.6 billion to help maintain vital services;
- Speaking from Los Angeles, Prince Harry said he was ‘incredibly proud’ of Britain’s response to the pandemic as gun salutes to mark the Queen’s 94th birthday on Tuesday were cancelled;
- The sum raised by war veteran Captain Tom Moore’s sponsored walk passed £23.6 million and his version of You’ll Never Walk Alone topped the iTunes chart. He will open a new hospital this week;
- Ministers faced claims of ‘sinfully empty’ private hospital wards requisitioned by the NHS;
- US lawyers launched legal action to sue China for compensation over the pandemic, accusing its leaders of negligence and a cover-up;
- Photographs from the Institute of Virology in Wuhan, where the virus first emerged, raised troubling new questions over biosecurity;
- The World Health Organisation (WHO) warned there was ‘no evidence’ that having had the virus guaranteed future immunity;
- The number of cases worldwide approached 2.3 million with almost 157,000 deaths
Professor Karol Sikora, a health expert on a panel convened by this newspaper to discuss how to best end the lockdown, said the first restrictions could be relaxed as early as a week tomorrow, if the signs are right.
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.’
How the MoS’s Corona Cabinet say we can get the UK moving
By Nick Craven, Holly Bancroft and Helen Cahill for the Mail on Sunday
Garden centres and DIY stores should the first businesses to reopen fully as the lockdown is relaxed, according to a panel of distinguished experts.
Home improvement, decorating and gardening could help revive the economy and give families a much-needed boost as they emerge from the restrictions which have had a devastating financial impact, the Mail on Sunday panel said.
The experts – drawn from the fields of public health, medicine, retail, economics and psychology – said the Government should plan a staged sequence of ending the lockdown.
Professor Karol Sikora (left) is one of the world’s leading cancer specialists and a former director of the WHO Cancer Programme. He is chief medical officer of Rutherford Health and Professor of Medicine at the University of Buckingham. Richard Hyman (right) is an independent retail consultant with more than 35 years’ experience providing insight and analysis. He founded the retail analysis firm Verdict and has worked as a strategic adviser to consultancy Deloitt
That would see the businesses that posed the least risk to health reopen first, with social distancing remaining and the effects on public health being carefully monitored.
Allowing the public to visit DIY and garden centres freely would be followed by rebooting small-scale manufacturing and most high street shops as long as coronavirus infections were clearly on the wane and sufficient testing was in place.
The experts said the criteria for which sectors of the economy to unlock first should be based on types of activity, rather than relaxing the rules by focusing on particular age groups or geographical areas.
They also called for the public to be allowed to travel without restrictions to parks and green spaces as long as they observe social distancing and stay two metres apart.
Dr Dimitrios Tsivrikos (left) is one of the UK’s leading consumer and business psychologist and works at University College London. Dr Tsivrikos advises businesses and governments on consumer behaviour. Dr Bharat Pankhania (right) is Senior Clinical Lecturer at the University of Exeter Medical School. He is a public health expert with more than 20 years’ experience in communicable disease control and infectious disease management
In a wide-ranging discussion on video conferencing platform Zoom, the MoS lockdown forum heard:
- The Government should spell out a clear strategy for ending the lockdown to the public as soon as possible, according to economist Gerard Lyons.
- The first phase of releasing the lockdown restrictions could occur as early as tomorrow week, if cases in the UK are falling sharply and there has been no second wave of infections seen from lockdowns being relaxed in countries such as Austria, cancer specialist Professor Karol Sikora said.
- Psychologist Dr Kimberly Dienes spoke of the profound effect the lockdown has had on many people by removing their control, and warned that people will be anxious on health and social grounds as they emerge from it.
- Business psychologist Dr Dimitrios Tsivrikos stressed the importance of kick-starting the economy – ‘or we might not have enough funds to support the medics’.
- Retail consultant Richard Hyman said supermarkets should be the model for other businesses to follow in ensuring social distancing.
- Public health expert Dr Bharat Pankhania said he saw nothing wrong in people driving to parks or beauty spots for exercise, if they observed strict social distancing.
Economist Mr Lyons wanted to see a ‘gradual unlocking of the economy’ in three phases.
But he stressed that the Government must give people a clear blueprint of the strategy in advance, ‘because once you start to unlock, the natural tendency is for people to experiment’.
‘The trigger should still be a medical one, based on the infection rate. We also need to take testing into account, along with changes in behaviour and social distancing, and we also need to enforce behavioural changes such as wearing masks. If behaviours go back to what they were before the crisis, that risks the virus re-emerging.
‘Garden centres are interesting because in terms of health and wellbeing, and in terms of spending time at home, one would think DIY activities and garden centres should be more accessible.’
Professor Sikora, who has warned of up to 60,000 unnecessary deaths among cancer patients if the NHS isn’t able to resume normal, non-coronavirus treatments, was the keenest panel member to get Britain moving.
He said: ‘I would move to the first phase by April 27, provided there was no second wave in Austria, control measures were in place and the number of cases and deaths has sharply dropped. I would then move to the second stage with small manufacturing etc on May 11, and a much fuller resumption of economic activity by May 25.
Gerard Lyons (left) is chief economist at Netwealth and senior fellow at the Policy Exchange. He advised Boris Johnson when he was London Mayor, and was in the running to replace Mark Carney as Bank of England Governor. Dr Kimberly Dienes (right) is a lecturer in clinical and health psychology at the University of Manchester with interests in social, biological and psychological stress processes. She has studied the experiences of people in social isolation
Dr Dienes, who has conducted psychological studies of people experiencing lockdown, left her colleagues in no doubt about the effects of isolation. ‘Their reaction has really been one of a loss of motivation, a loss of self-worth in a lot of ways. Many people reported depression and anxiety as a result of the lockdown.’
And she warned that while some people might want to ‘run to the beaches’ when the measures ended, two things will happen: ‘People will want to engage more but they will also have health anxiety and social anxiety about engaging with the outside world again.’
Dr Tsivrikos said the Government’s strategy on public communication ‘has been a disaster’.
‘I think what we have done so far is to simply scare people and that can only work up to a point. What is a saving grace is that we are actually globally experiencing this – people have been obedient because they have seen other people do it.’
Mr Hyman said the way supermarket bosses had dealt with social distancing should be the model for others. ‘What most of the big food stores are doing is limiting the number of people going in at any one time, and they are ensuring it’s one person at a time, so group shopping is outlawed. It has become a functional activity.
‘Common sense suggests areas like DIY and garden centres are probably the way to start.’
Dr Pankhania said: ‘You either get infected from human beings or from a place where other humans congregate – so from some kind of contaminated surface. If you can mitigate [the risk of infection] by social distancing, masks and gloves, then a lot of things become possible, provided also that cases and deaths are falling sharply, there is enough testing being carried out and adequate PPE is available.’
But he also warned of the dangers of a second wave of infections if the relaxation was carried out too fast. ‘We do not know that you become immune after you have been infected and recover, so people should assume they are still at risk.’
Get Britain blooming again…
By Helen Cahill, City correspondent for the Mail on Sunday
Britain’s garden centres could reopen almost immediately – with strict social distancing rules – under proposals being considered by Ministers.
Businesses have warned that £200 million-worth of seasonal plants will be destroyed if centres are forced to stay closed until June.
That would mean an overall loss of £1.6 billion due to the lockdown, so the industry has devised a rescue plan which it sent to officials two weeks ago.
It details how the UK’s 2,000 garden centres could open their doors for the rest of the crucial spring and summer season without putting customers and staff at risk. The three month period between April and June is the equivalent of Christmas for the horticulture industry.
Ready to sell: Plants waiting for gardeners at a centre in Essex. Businesses have warned that £200 million-worth of seasonal plants will be destroyed if centres are forced to stay closed until June
Garden centre bosses insist they could shift stock quickly and start paying suppliers if the Government approves the new arrangements, which would allow the public to buy plants, essential gardening equipment and pet care products that are being sold elsewhere in stores that stayed open.
Restaurants, cafes and areas selling non-plant products in the complexes would remain closed.
Under the plans, customers would only be able to use car parks in limited numbers, with an empty space left between each parked vehicle.
Entry to the centres would be strictly controlled, with one-way walking, one customer for every 1,000 sq ft of floor space and tape marks on the floor to enforce social distancing. Perspex screens would protect staff and trolleys would be disinfected regularly.
Sarah Squire, chairman of major chain Squires, said: ‘The timing could not be worse for our sector. It’s all about the spring for us, and if we can catch a little bit of that, it would make a very big difference.
‘We make 40 per cent of our annual takings from the middle of March to the end of June. So you don’t need a degree in economics to know that for the rest of the year it will be difficult for us.
‘You need to make your profits in the spring to carry the business through the rest of the year.’
Simon Burke, chairman of the country’s second-largest garden chain, Blue Diamond, said: ‘If the summer bedding plants aren’t sold between now and the end of June, they are dead.
‘Obviously there is absolutely no room for compromise on safety. But garden centres are large spaces so customers could come in and keep their distance, much more so than they would in an average food store, where the aisles are not very wide.’
Boyd Douglas Davies, president of the Horticultural Trade Association, warned that unless action was taken promptly, millions of plants would be heading towards compost heaps instead of gardens.
He added: ‘This is a quick and easy way for the Government to give something back to the public. If you’re asking them to stay at home for a long time, give them something to do in their garden.’
The garden centres have missed out on much of the sales they would normally generate from spring plants but bosses are hopeful that they could avoid more serious financial pain if they are allowed to offload stocks of summer plants.
It is thought that independent nurseries that supply the larger stores could be worst hit, as some of them make up to 80 per cent of their yearly sales at this time.
In signs of a Government strategy shift, B&Q has been allowed to open 14 stores to trial new social distancing measures. Since the lockdown, DIY stores have been allowed only to sell items for emergency repairs through click and collect services.
They have been told to narrow their ranges to stop shoppers from buying items that could let them start a home improvement project or any home decoration.
Shoppers order online and drive to stores, where supplies are loaded into the boot of the car by staff.
But industry representatives said the rules should be relaxed so shoppers could start projects without fear of judgment.
Andrew Goodacre, chief executive of the British Independent Retail Association, said: ‘We do know from our members who run hardware stores that there has been a huge demand for DIY products, especially paint, and most of them have chosen to stay open.
‘There is a sense that if you are asking people to stay at home and don’t want them to go stir crazy, then they should be allowed to do something in the house whether it’s DIY, painting or gardening.
‘Some of our members are taking to delivering their stock and people are very happy to receive stuff at home. It helps lift the national spirit to have something to do.’
A spokesman for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said last night that the Government ‘would keep the policy under review and guidance will be updated as required’.
We must give small firms a tax holiday for two years
By David Davis for the Mail on Sunday
Assuming that we have this dreadful virus under control, it is now essential we take the brakes off the economy and get as many people as possible back to work.
Starting in three weeks’ time, when this lockdown will be reviewed, we must do all we can to help small businesses get back up and running, as well as letting many more small shops open up again.
We must kill off this virus threat – and move heaven and earth to protect those most at risk – but we must not kill off our economy in the process.
All the data tells us that between 90 per cent and 97 per cent of the deaths have been of people with pre-existing health conditions –from heart disease to diabetes.
There are about two million most at risk from the virus, and many are economically inactive. We must protect them as effectively as we can. For example, the supermarkets and delivery companies must be told that they are the absolute priority.
They must stay self-isolating while the rest of the workforce gets back to work as soon as is practical and safe.
Of course, we cannot go back immediately to the level of economic activity that we had before the virus. But we must start what will be a step-by-step process.
The Government will understandably want to see what happens in the countries where lockdowns are already being relaxed.
The UK will be watching like a hawk to see what happens to the spread of the virus in those countries. There will be a huge amount to learn from the tactics that work – and those that fail.
I can guarantee that, sadly, infection rates in some of those countries will rise. But it’s not simply the infection rate we should look at, it’s the death rate. It is this that we have to keep under control.
It is also what should guide how quickly we can relax our own lockdown and in which areas. However, we also need a longer-term plan on how we recover from the pandemic and rebuild after this extraordinary economic shutdown.
For that, I suggest we need a combination of tax cuts for small businesses and new spending on multiple infrastructure projects designed to get the economy back on its feet – a mixture of US-style Reaganomics and Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s.
Small businesses should effectively not be asked to pay any tax for the next two years as they are vital for our longer-term economic regeneration.
It is the men and women running small businesses who will lead our recovery, not the multinationals and conglomerates.
The idea of more tax cuts may give Chancellor Rishi Sunak a panic attack over his breakfast toast and marmalade. But let’s be honest, we will be paying back the cost of the Government’s massive virus-related aid for probably 50 years.
That is not a cause for panic – the war loans took at least as long and interest rates are lower now. Therefore, we should not worry about tax breaks for small business for a relatively short period.
As well as copying Ronald Reagan’s 1980s tax cuts, we should also look to the massive infrastructure spending of President Roosevelt in his New Deal. Today’s interstate highways, airports and national parks had their origins then.
Our Government must help to refloat the economy by building our infrastructure of tomorrow, be that urban tramways, broadband, or bypasses.
The British economy in 12 months’ time will sadly look very different. The Government’s job will be to re-energise it.
Of course, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab – in charge while Boris Johnson is recovering from the virus – and other Ministers are right to say that they must focus all their attention now on curbing the current spread of the virus. I think everyone in the country wishes them the best of luck with that.
But behind the scenes, they must plan now to restart our economy and get the nation back to work – starting in three weeks’ time.