UK ministers facing renewed pressure over lockdown easing

School closed due to coronavirus

Critics are looking to drive ministers back on their plans to ease parts of the lockdown as the British government faces fresh pressure from council leaders and Labour over its steps to return the country back to a sense of normality.

Leaders of local authorities and unions chiefs have accused ministers of going too fast on its plans to reopen schools and want more local control over their return.

And Labour has taken aim at the government’s track-and-trace plans – seen as key to allowing the UK to lift the most stringent lockdown measures –warning ministers its crack team of contact tracers should be close to three times the size of the operation currently being installed.

The UK Local Government Association (LGA) has said schools should be allowed to make their own decisions about reopening, especially in areas where there is a higher proportion of black, Asian and minority ethnic residents.

Councillor Judith Blake, chairwoman of the LGA’s children and young people board, said parents were “anxious” about sending their children back to school and said more needed to be done to reassure families.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, when announcing his plans for taking England out of lockdown, said Reception, Y1 and Y6 pupils could go back as soon as next month.

And British Education Secretary Gavin Williamson this week said medical and scientific advice was “saying it’s the right time to start bringing schools back in a phased and controlled manner”.

But the LGA is calling for some schools, in consultation with councils, to be given greater flexibility locally over reopening as they argue that some communities are at higher risk.

It comes after an analysis by the UK Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggested that black men and women are more than four times more likely to die a coronavirus-related death than white people.

Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said a “wider opening of schools, too early, poses a lot of unanswered questions about the risks in poor communities”.

On track-and-tracing, Rachel Reeves, Labour’s shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, has challenged the government on whether its manual contact tracing operation – designed to warn people if they have come into close proximity with an infected person – will be well resourced enough to carry out the task successfully.

In a letter to her opposite number Michael Gove, she questioned why, according to reports, outsourcing giant Serco had been asked to provide 18,000 staff “despite some public health professionals suggesting as many as that 50,000 staff are needed” on top of the roll-out of the NHS Covid-19 symptoms app.

She said the set-up of the team would have “consequences which are profound both in terms of public health and the economy”.

The UK’s rate of infection appeared to be slowing, with academics at the University of Cambridge reporting that the R rate was now firmly under 1.0 – a goal Mr Johnson has set in order to keep gradually releasing the lockdown in the coming months.

London, according to the university’s MRC Biostatistics Unit, has an R rate (a measurement of the number of people an infected person passes the disease to) of 0.4, the lowest in the country, having once been the worst affected in terms of coronavirus-related hospital admissions.

It means for every 10 people who are infected, they are likely to pass it onto four people, with 24 daily transmissions said to be occurring currently in the capital.

According to the modelling, which is the the work of a joint Public Health England (PHE) and University of Cambridge group, the English region with the highest R rate is the North East and Yorkshire, with a transmission rate of 0.8.

It comes as:

  • Frontline workers, including those in the NHS, will be the first to get a new antibody test for Covid-19, England’s deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam has said.
  • Boris Johnson’s fiance Carrie Symonds joined the British Prime Minister on the steps of Downing Street to join in with the national applause for health workers.
  • A mayoral source confirmed to the PA news agency that Transport for London had been granted a government bailout, after its income slumped by 90% as a result of the lockdown measures.
  • Northern Ireland took its first steps towards easing its coronavirus restrictions, with garden centres and household recycling centres to be allowed to reopen on Monday.
  • One in 370 people in England, equivalent to 0.27% of the population, were infected with coronavirus over the two weeks up to May 10, figures released by the ONS suggested.
  • Some 126,064 tests were carried out on Wednesday.
  • British Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said more than half of people on the Isle of Wight have now downloaded the NHS contact tracing app.

Further updates are expected in the coming days on how the forthcoming antibody test will work.
PHE has approved a new test from the pharmaceutical giant Roche after experts at its Porton Down facility gave it the green light.

The test – which Mr Johnson has previously called a “game-changer” – picks up cases where somebody has had coronavirus in the past, and can be used on people who experienced no symptoms.

Professor Van-Tam said it was clear that people who had Covid-19 generated an antibody response, but it would “take time” to understand whether in all cases people developed immunity against coronavirus.

Number 10 said the new antibody test would “certainly” be available on the NHS, but commercial discussions with Roche are ongoing.

Roche said it could supply hundreds of thousands of the tests each week.

The pharmaceutical firm said it would prioritise tests for distribution via the NHS before looking at how they may be sold to individuals.

The British Prime Minister’s official spokesman said the idea of an “immunity certificate” was also still under consideration if science showed that people developed immunity to Covid-19.

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