NHS hospitals across Britain are to start restoring non-urgent treatments for conditions like cancer and heart disease on Tuesday as experts grow increasingly confident that the first peak of coronavirus infections is passing.
The announcement came as the daily death toll of coronavirus cases in hospital fell to 360 – the lowest since the end of March.
Returning to work after three weeks suffering from the infection, Boris Johnson said there were signs the country was “turning the tide” on the outbreak but warned it was too early to lift social distancing restrictions.
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And chief medical officer Chris Whitty said there was still “a very long way to go” to beat the illness, with fatalities set to rise well above the current tally of 21,092 in UK hospitals. Prof Whitty distanced himself from chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance’s earlier suggestion that a total of 20,000 deaths would be “a good outcome”, stressing that he had never put a number on the likely toll.
The developments came as:
– The health secretary, Matt Hancock, announced a £60,000 payment for families of health and care workers killed by coronavirus, as the number of deaths rose to 82 among NHS staff and 16 in care homes.
– The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, unveiled a fast-track “bounce back” micro-loan scheme with a 100 per cent state guarantee, worth up to £50,000 for the smallest businesses.
– Sir Patrick Vallance said that the membership of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage) would be published shortly, following controversy over the involvement of No 10 adviser Dominic Cummings, although individual members could ask to remain anonymous.
– Justice minister Robert Buckland told the House of Commons that prisons were facing shortages of protective coveralls, at a time when 293 prison staff and 321 inmates have tested positive for coronavirus and five officers and 15 prisoners have died, while just 33 have been released early under a scheme to ease pressure during the outbreak.
– Downing Street backed a minute’s silence for workers killed by coronavirus and confirmed Mr Johnson will join the trade union organised show of respect at 11am on Tuesday.
While confirming that current trends showed “a gradual decline” in Covid-19 cases, Prof Whitty warned the daily Downing Street press conference that premature lifting of the lockdown could unleash an “exponential” surge in illness and warned: “We’re definitely not consistently past the peak across the whole country at this point in time.”
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The prime minister – who described the virus as “an unexpected and invisible mugger” which must be “wrestled to the ground” – promised to reveal details in the coming days of how the nationwide lockdown will be eased, but said the removal of restrictions will be “gradual”.
The restoration of a wider range of operations in NHS hospitals comes amid growing concern that the emergency response to Covid-19 has had a knock-on effect of driving up deaths from other causes, with official statistics showing around 5,000 “excess” fatalities not linked to the virus in the three weeks to 10 April.
Some 30,000 beds in England were freed up for Covid cases by postponing non-urgent operations and discharging inpatients, in order to ensure that the NHS was not overwhelmed by numbers of patients requiring ventilation in an intensive care setting.
But with coronavirus patients in hospital now down to just over 15,000, and 3,190 spare critical care beds – including 42 per cent of the NHS’s total oxygen-supported beds – available, health secretary Matt Hancock said it was now possible to allow elective surgery to resume.
Speaking at the daily 10 Downing Street press conference on Monday, Mr Hancock said: “As the number of hospitalisations from coronavirus begins to fall, I can announce that starting tomorrow, we will begin the restoration of other NHS services starting with the most urgent like cancer care and mental health support.”
The exact pace of the restoration over the coming weeks will be determined by local circumstances, with the most urgent treatments brought back soonest, said the health secretary.
He voiced concern over a drop of more than 50 per cent – to 221,000 last week – in the number of people attending accident and emergency departments compared to last year.
Warning that some of this decline was accounted for by people staying away despite suspected heart attack, stroke or cancer, he sent out a message: “The NHS is open. Help us to help you. Come forward and seek help as you always would.”
For the first time in a Downing Street press conference, Mr Hancock took a question from a member of the public.
The query from Lynne of Skipton was chosen from 15,000 posed online on the first day of a new scheme under which one question a day will be selected by independent pollsters YouGov without the involvement of ministers.
Read out by the health secretary, Lynne’s question was: “I’m missing my grandchildren so much. Please can you let me know if, after the five criteria are met, is being able to hug our closest family one of the first steps out of lockdown?”
Prof Whitty responded that getting together with family members “might not be prudent” if Lynne is among those elderly people with underlying health conditions regarded as particularly vulnerable to coronavirus.
And Mr Hancock said: “It’s one of the most natural things in the world to want to hug a member of your family and we just hope we can get back to that as soon as possible.”
He said that “the best way we can get there fastest” was for people to follow social distancing rules, so that the government can meet its five tests for relaxing the lockdown – protecting the NHS, achieving a fall in death and infection rates, providing sufficient testing and protective equipment and avoiding a second peak of cases.