Ministers have raised the prospect of Britain’s coronavirus lockdown extending beyond three weeks, as Boris Johnson spent a third night in intensive care.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, who is deputising for the Prime Minister, will chair a Cobra emergency committee on Thursday afternoon to discuss the lockdown measures with leaders of the devolved nations.
No decision is expected to be made at that meeting in Mr Johnson’s absence, with key figures in the response instead discussing how it will be resolved next week.
With Wednesday seeing a rise of 938 in the number of deaths in hospitals of patients who tested positive for Covid-19, the highest new total so far, and the Prime Minister still in hospital, there seems little chance of the lockdown being lifted.
However the restrictions face their toughest test so far over the Easter weekend, with temperatures set to reach 25C (77F) in some parts of the country, which could tempt more people to break the stay at home rules.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak refused to “speculate” about the future of the lockdown, instead confirming there would be a review of the measures “in and around three weeks” after they started.
The three-week mark will be reached on Easter Monday, while legislation designed to assist with the containment must also be reviewed at least once every 21 days – with the first due to be carried out by April 16 at the latest.
Mr Sunak sidestepped questions about the prospect of different parts of the UK emerging from the lockdown at different times.
Deputy chief scientific adviser Professor Dame Angela McLean, addressing the same question, said she suspected “simple strategies might well turn out to be the best to use”.
Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey said Britons have responded “really well” to the measures but told ITV’s Peston: “It’s not a case of just throwing that away but in making sure, as we have done every step of the way in our plan, we listen to our experts, we come to a judgment and more of that will be discussed (on Thursday).”
Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford earlier said the lockdown will not end in Wales next week, insisting “we will not throw away the gains” by “abandoning our efforts just as they begin to bear fruit”.
Debate about the lockdown took place as Downing Street offered more hopeful news about the Prime Minister.
Number 10 said Mr Johnson remains in intensive care but is making “steady progress”, with further updates expected on Thursday.
Mr Sunak said the PM was “sitting up in bed” and “engaging positively” with the medics treating him for Covid-19 at St Thomas’s Hospital in London on Wednesday.
But the boost came as the nation saw its record number of deaths in hospitals, with a rise of 938 taking the toll to at least 7,097, according to Department of Health figures.
Though significantly larger than the previous highest toll of 786, Prof McLean said new cases are not “accelerating out of control”.
At the daily Downing Street press conference, Mr Sunak unveiled a £750 million bailout to keep struggling charities afloat in the Treasury’s latest emergency measure.
Many charities welcomed the move but some also warned it must be the start – and not the end – of the Government’s efforts in protecting the sector.
Providing an update on Mr Johnson, a Downing Street spokeswoman said on Wednesday night: “The Prime Minister continues to make steady progress. He remains in intensive care.”
No 10 earlier said the PM was no longer working while following the advice of doctors, and receiving just the “standard oxygen treatment” and “breathing without any other assistance”.
The PM’s three-week review into the lockdown measures had been due on Monday, but Downing Street is now saying it will be “on or around” that day.
Mr Sunak said the evidence to inform any review “will only be available next week”.
In Northern Ireland, Stormont minister Deirdre Hargey indicated there will be no relaxation of restrictions there at next week’s review.
Though the death toll rose, Prof McLean said there was “good news” in the daily number of new cases, which is a better indicator of whether distancing measures are working than fatalities.
“This count of new cases in the UK, day by day over the last few weeks, is not accelerating out of control,” she said.
NHS England’s national medical director Professor Stephen Powis warned that “this is not the time to become complacent”, however.
“We are beginning to see the benefits, I believe (of following Government measures), but the really critical thing, I believe, is that we have to continue following instructions, we have to continue following social distancing, because if we don’t, the virus will start to spread again,” he said.
Elsewhere, the Royal College of Nursing warned a lack of protective equipment is “fundamentally compromising” the care nurses can give to patients.
Premier League players joined forces to create an initiative which aims to raise funds for NHS charities during the coronavirus pandemic and distribute them “where they are needed most”.
The Jewish Chronicle and Jewish News also announced they will go into liquidation as the crisis continued to devastate the media industry.
And World Health Organisation regional director Dr Hans Kluge said any easing of restrictions required “very careful consideration” as he warned progress in Europe remained “extremely fragile”.