Revealed: The UK’s “Three Stage” Exit Strategy To Ease The Coronavirus Lockdown

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Posted on

April 18, 2020, 07:46 GMT

Alex Wickham

Political Editor

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Ministers and government scientists are drawing up what they hope will be a “three stage” approach to easing the coronavirus lockdown restrictions in the UK in phases between May and July, sources with direct knowledge of the plan told BuzzFeed News.

The strategy will depend heavily on significant improvements in infection rate data over the next three weeks, Britain dramatically increasing its testing and contact tracing capacity, tens of millions of people downloading a new NHS app, the efficacy of antiviral drugs at reducing symptoms of COVID-19, and strict measures remaining in place for elderly and vulnerable people until a vaccine is found.

As ministers publicly remained tight-lipped about a so-called exit strategy for lockdown — and some in cabinet complained they were being kept out of the loop on Downing Street’s plans — BuzzFeed News can reveal:

  • A “best-case scenario” being worked on by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) hopes to end lockdown restrictions for certain nonessential shops and industries in the short term, from early to mid-May.

  • Some social distancing measures could then gradually be relaxed in the medium term, in June and July, eventually leading to the reopening of pubs and restaurants towards the end of summer.

  • Long-term “shielding” for elderly and vulnerable people could mean limits on people seeing their parents or grandparents over 70 for as long as 12 to 18 months until a vaccine is found.

  • The timeline relies on SAGE scientists calculating how many new COVID-19 infections per day the UK’s test and trace capabilities can manage and an “impossible” political decision for Downing Street on how many deaths per day they are willing to accept in order to be able to lift some restrictions before there is a vaccine.

This week, health secretary Matt Hancock and other senior ministers insisted that it was too early to talk about an exit strategy from the lockdown, partly because government aides think that doing so will discourage people from following the rules in the meantime.

The phrase “exit strategy” itself is also disliked by some Downing Street aides because it creates the impression we are close to a return to normality — when in reality some social distancing measures will have to stay in place indefinitely until a vaccine is found.

Privately, though, work on an exit plan is taking place at pace. There is increasing optimism in Whitehall that, although the UK death rate is still higher than those of many other countries across Europe, and the NHS faces continuing problems over the supply of protective equipment for frontline staff, the peak of the coronavirus crisis in this country will not be as devastating as feared by modellers a month ago.

Forecasts by government scientists had envisaged the NHS facing a monumental task to not breach capacity at the peak, with the possibility of the health service running out of intensive care beds and ventilators, leading to tens of thousands of extra deaths.

As Britain approaches the peak, ministers are now quietly confident that this disaster scenario will not happen. Part of the reason is that it is now believed fewer people have contracted the virus than the experts expected and that the nature of the virus itself is different from their initial understanding, with fewer patients requiring ventilation.

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“The NHS has done it,” one minister told BuzzFeed News. “This has been an appalling few weeks, but we appear to have got through it without the worst happening.”

No exact plan to relax the lockdown has been finalised, government sources told BuzzFeed News, because it was too early to take decisions without knowing if the transmission rate of the virus, “the R number”, was coming down to a manageable level, and whether proposals to test and trace potential cases were viable. If either of these did not go to plan, restrictions would have to be extended again or reintroduced at a later date, they warned.

There are also a range of different options for how the UK could lift the restrictions, affecting different industries and age groups in different ways, based on as yet unavailable data. One source said the permutations at this stage were so varied and dependent on nonexistent data that they could not give a definitive picture of what life will look like in the months ahead.

However, ministers and government scientists are working on a broader three-stage strategy to ease some restrictions over the next three months, multiple sources familiar with the plan told BuzzFeed News.

The first stage, in what one minister said was a “best-case scenario”, would begin with schools and some businesses reopening in early to mid-May in order to get the economy moving again. Chancellor Rishi Sunak is determined to allow nonessential retail shops to reopen as soon as possible, as well as warehouses for businesses such as Next, which closed its operations last month.

The Treasury also wants to let as much of the manufacturing and construction industries get back to work as possible while encouraging proper hygiene and social distancing in the workplace.

People would be allowed out of their homes for nonessential shopping in this scenario, but most social distancing measures would remain in place. Some ministers are lobbying Downing Street to partially relax some other of the harshest rules in this first stage, such as those stopping people from sitting in parks or taking more than one form of exercise a day.

Commuters could be encouraged to wear masks on public transport if an ongoing review of scientific advice finds them to be effective at preventing the spread of the disease.

There are concerns in government that this is another area Britain has been slower to get on top of than other countries. The Department of Health told BuzzFeed News that no procurement of masks for the general public was yet taking place, and that it was still focusing on buying masks for NHS and care workers.

The second stage would see more businesses reopening and further social distancing measures lifted, and ministers hope this can start to take place by the end of May or beginning of June. This would mean most people returning to work and small gatherings being permitted. Later in the summer, the government hopes to be able to open pubs and restaurants.

SAGE scientists are also looking at lifting restrictions by age, raising the prospect that people under a certain age threshold could be able to go back to their offices sooner, organise social gatherings, or go to the pub — but those above the limit cannot.

Ministers and aides believe the development of new treatments for COVID-19 and the repurposing of existing antiviral drugs could have an important role in allowing the UK to move to stage two. Aides have been optimistically sharing news in their WhatsApp groups this week that a drug called remdesivir has shown signs of alleviating symptoms in patients in the US. There is now increasing optimism in Whitehall that by summer antiviral drugs could be used in Britain to give coronavirus patients a better chance of recovery and reduce death rates.

The third stage is the long-term final “exit” from the coronavirus crisis, when it is defeated once and for all and life returns to normal for the whole nation.

Government scientists have told ministers that there are only two routes to fully beating the virus: developing a vaccine, or the controversial “herd immunity” approach whereby a majority of the population get the disease, recover and can return to normal life.

Neither is a realistic prospect any time soon, with a vaccine thought to be a year to 18 months away — although scientists at the University of Oxford claim they could produce one by September — and doubts about how long immunity lasts. Until one of those two outcomes is achieved, the elderly and vulnerable must continue to be “shielded” with as many of the social distancing measures remaining in place as possible, a minister told BuzzFeed News.

Government figures are concerned that the public has not fully grasped the prospect of an effective indefinite lockdown for those over 70 and vulnerable groups. “‘You can’t see granny for 18 months’ is going to be an extremely unpopular and difficult policy to enforce,” the minister said.

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How and when the UK can move through the three exit stages depends on various factors, the most crucial being whether the government can successfully increase its (currently extremely limited) capacity to test for the virus and trace people who may have come into contact with it. Privately, some Whitehall colleagues expect Hancock to miss his target of 100,000 tests per day by “a week or two”.

Whitehall insiders point to several areas of concern. Hancock is prioritising an NHS app that would use Bluetooth technology to flag up on people’s phones if they have been in contact with someone with coronavirus symptoms and tell them to get tested. But government aides believe that in order for the app to be effective, it needs to be downloaded by 60% of the population, a task that some fear will be extremely difficult to pull off.

Officials are looking at how to enforce use of the app, potentially even requiring people by law to have it on their phones if they want any lifting of lockdown restrictions to apply to them.

There are also worries that the UK has again been too slow to hire an army of contact tracers that will be necessary to complement the app. This week, BuzzFeed News reported on concerns that the app will not work unless it is accompanied by mass testing and human-led contact tracing, areas where Britain is currently falling short.

The efficacy of test and trace as an exit strategy is also dependent on the rate of new COVID-19 infections, the government’s scientists have told ministers. Put simply, test and trace is not viable if more people are being infected each day than the health system has capacity to test and trace.

The government’s target of 100,000 tests per day means the rate of new infections would likely have to be in the low thousands for sufficient testing and tracing to be able to take place. On Friday, there were 5,559 confirmed new coronavirus cases in the UK, with many more likely getting the virus but untested. If the rate of new infections surpasses the capacity to test and trace, the government would be unable to lift lockdown restrictions for fear the virus would again become untestable, untraceable and uncontrollable.

The hardest decision for Downing Street is that it has to ultimately look at the data gathered by scientists on the rate of new infections, divide it by a hundred to come up with an estimate for likely new deaths, then take a political decision on whether that number is low enough for them to justify relaxing some of the lockdown measures.

For example, if there are 1,000 new infections taking place per day, at a mortality rate of around 1%, that is likely to mean around 10 new deaths from COVID-19 over the following two weeks.

Regardless of how well set up the UK is on testing and tracing, Number 10 will have to make a judgment call on whether keeping the British economy alive justifies lifting some restrictions and tolerating those deaths. This decision was described to BuzzFeed News by one minister as “impossible”.

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Alex Wickham is a senior reporter with BuzzFeed News and is based in London.

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The Health Secretary Has Said Official Statistics Don’t Show The True Number Of People Who’ve Died In The UK’s Care Homes

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Posted on

April 17, 2020, 13:16 GMT

Hannah Al-Othman

BuzzFeed News Reporter

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The health secretary Matt Hancock has confirmed that the number of deaths from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, in care homes is likely to be higher than those reported by the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

At a virtual meeting of Parliament’s health and social care committee on Friday, committee chair Jeremy Hunt said the ONS statistics show there have been 217 care home deaths to date.

“Scotland thinks it’s a quarter of all its COVID deaths are in care homes,” he said, “France, Italy, Spain think it’s about half of their COVID deaths are in care homes. Does it really seem likely to you that less than 2% of our COVID deaths are in care homes?”

In response, Hancock said the ONS figures were a couple of weeks behind, but added: “I’m absolutely sure that both the number and the proportion, I can say with a high degree of confidence that the number and the proportion are higher than what you say.”

He then faced criticism from Hunt for the government’s failure to reveal care home deaths along with hospital statistics on a daily basis.

Hancock said the government was working to improve reporting on deaths in residential care.

“I have asked the CQC to make sure we record the deaths of those who are residents of care homes,” he said. “They started to collect that data yesterday and it will start to be published shortly.”

Hancock also defended the government’s record on testing after it emerged only 18,000 tests were carried out yesterday, well short of the 100,000 tests-a-day target he has set for the end of April.

Hancock described drive-through testing centres as a “big policy success,” but MPs grilled him on his failure to improve on numbers with just two weeks for the government to meet its pledge of 100,000 tests a day.

Hancock said around 18,000 tests had been carried out yesterday, with the majority in NHS laboratories, and said testing capacity was now at around 30,000. He insisted the government was still on course to hit its target of 100,000 tests per day by the end of the month — which means it will have to more than double testing capacity in less than a fortnight.

The health secretary also announced that testing would be rolled out to other public service workers, including firefighters, police, the judiciary and prison officers, and critical local authority and Department for Work and Pensions staff from today.

In response, Conservative backbencher Laura Trott asked: “We have capacity for 30,000 tests, and we’re carrying out 18,000. I know my local CCG has said they’ve got capacity for huge amounts of more tests than are actually being carried out.

“I know from today, from the expansion, which is very welcome, to local government, firefighters, etc, that will take up some of that excess capacity, but what is being done centrally to make sure we’re using resources where they’re needed?”

Hancock said using the capacity was a “real challenge”, and suggested that one reason the government was falling behind was a lack of uptake from health workers, adding that the Easter bank holiday could have limited the numbers of people coming forward.

“Within the NHS, the number of staff coming forward for testing is lower than was anticipated,” he said.

“You’ll understand why we had a priority order for the use of the test where it was patients first, then NHS staff. Frankly, the number of NHS staff coming forward wasn’t as high as expected and therefore we extended it very quickly both to residents and staff in social care.”

Hancock added that the Department of Health staff were also working to ensure that supply and demand were adequately matched at centres around the country.

Labour MP Rosie Cooper told the health secretary that NHS staff were struggling to access the drive-through testing centres that the government had set up.

“The testing centres that have been set up in out-of-town areas,” she said, “it could only have come from the centre — somebody who’s got no idea locally how people are supposed to travel miles and miles and miles to get tested — they might as well be on the moon frankly.”

In response, Hancock said: “We’ve now got 22, we’re going to have 50 right across the country, that’s precisely to get the testing capabilities out into the community, and then once we’ve got those established, we’re going to have mobile units, and then when the technology is good enough we will have home testing kits as well.”

The health secretary also admitted that he did not know how many NHS workers had contracted the virus so far.

“What I have is an estimate of the proportion who are off work because they either have suspected COVID-19 or a household member does, which is a little over 8%. And obviously with the expansion of testing, we hope to be able to get that figure down.”

Hancock told MPs that there were still ongoing problems with PPE supply. “We are tight on gowns,” he said. “That is the pressure point at the moment. We have another 55,000 gowns arriving today and we’re working on the acquisition internationally of more gowns, but it is a challenge.

“And this follows changing the guidance 10 days ago which increased the advice on the use of gowns but also said that they should be used for sessional use rather than for individual patient use. And it is a big challenge delivering against that new guidance and we’re doing everything we possibly can.”

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Hannah Al-Othman is a political correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.

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A War Veteran Has Raised £15 Million For NHS Charities To Mark His 100th Birthday

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Originally posted on

April 16, 2020, 11:17 GMT

Updated on

April 17, 2020, 09:55 GMT

Hannah Al-Othman

BuzzFeed News Reporter

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This is Capt Tom Moore, a 99-year-old war veteran from Bedfordshire in south-east England.

Joe Giddens / PA

He set himself the challenge of walking 100 laps of his garden before his 100th birthday at the end of the month. He wanted to raise money for NHS staff who are caring for patients being treated for COVID-19.

His daughter Hannah said he wanted to take up the challenge to thank the NHS for the “incredible care” he had received over the past 18 months.

Moore has been walking 10 laps of his garden every day.

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He was born and brought up in Keighley, West Yorkshire, and enlisted in the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment at the beginning of the Second World War, where was selected for officer training. He went on to serve in India and Burma.

He now lives in Marston Moretaine, Bedfordshire, where he has, with the aid of a walking frame, been walking 10 laps of his garden — which is 25 metres long — every single day.

“I can get about slowly,” he told the BBC. “So long as people don’t want me to run about too fast I can manage and will continue to manage as long as I possibly can.”

He set out to raise a modest £1,000 — and absolutely smashed it.

Joe Giddens / PA

Moore set his initial target at a modest £1,000, but his fundraising page has been absolutely flooded with donations. He has already raised more than £13million.

After news of his challenge spread, he hit his first target in just 24 hours. He upped it to £100,000, then £250,000, and then a huge £500,000 — but he has blown all of them out of the water.

When he first passed the £1 million mark, his family said in a statement: “We are so thrilled, and so glad to be able to unite our country at such a sad time and all for our incredible NHS. Tom would like to thank all of you, from the bottom of his heart.”

He completed the final laps live on television, with a Guard of Honour.

BBC Breakfast

He's done it! 👏
#CaptainTomMoore has completed his 100 laps before his 100th birthday live on #BBCBreakfast! 🙌
He's raised over £12 million for the #NHS
Well done @captaintommoore from everyone at the @BBC 💕

07:39 AM – 16 Apr 2020


On Thursday morning, Moore completed the final laps of his garden wearing his army medals, with the 1st Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment forming a Guard of Honour.

Maj Ian Atkins, the officer commanding the troops in the Guard of Honour, said: “The soldiers, standing apart and yet together in support of Captain Tom, couldn’t be prouder to count him as one of their own, and we thank him from the bottom of our hearts for his service to the country, and now his achievements in the name of the NHS.

“The British Army, the NHS and the whole nation has been behind him every step of the way.”

Television cameras from the BBC were there to capture the moment he completed his challenge.

He told reporters he felt “fine” after made his final steps. “I’m surrounded by the right sort of people, so yes, I feel fine,” he said. “I hope you’re all feeling fine too!”

He told the BBC that the donations from the public amounted to “an absolutely fantastic sum of money”.

“I never dreamt I would be involved in such an occasion as this,” he said.

Moore has received messages and support and congratulations from across the country.

Frances Haycock / PA

Chancellor Rishi Sunak, whose constituency is in Yorkshire, said: “What you’ve done is extraordinary, and the millions of pounds you’ve raised for the NHS will be put to good use as we continue to tackle this virus together.

“As an adopted Yorkshireman, I’ve come to recognise true Yorkshire grit, and your story is an inspiration to us all, it just goes to show that British spirit is as strong as it’s ever been.”

England cricketer Ben Stokes said: “What you’ve managed to achieve is absolutely fantastic. The funds you have raised for the real heroes today [are] just sensational.

“I hope I’m moving just as well as you at 50, never mind 100. Keep up the good work.”

And NHS Charities Together, which will receive the money he has raised, said it was “truly inspired and humbled.”

Chair Ian Lush said: “It’s extraordinary to see the amount of money and the outpouring of goodwill towards the NHS and towards all the NHS charities who will take good care with the money that he’s raising.”

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Hannah Al-Othman is a political correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.

Contact Hannah Al-Othman at

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