The public should expect “limited” changes to be made to the lockdown on Sunday as the Government looks to temper expectations over the lifting of the coronavirus-related restrictions.
Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said the social-distancing rules currently in place had not been lifted for the bank holiday weekend, with the country on Friday marking the 75th anniversary of VE Day, when victory was declared in Europe during the Second World War.
The lockdown is facing a major test from a long weekend of warm weather, and concerns of mixed messaging ahead of Boris Johnson’s announcement on easing restrictions.
Mr Dowden told BBC Breakfast: “The situation remains exactly as it has been for several weeks, that is people should be staying at home in order to protect the NHS and save lives. That hasn’t changed.
With official data suggesting more than 36,000 people have died with coronavirus in the UK, the PM is set to unveil his “road map” for easing the lockdown in a broadcast to the nation at 7pm on Sunday.
Mr Dowden said the Conservative Party leader would explain the stages involved in getting the country working again now that the rate of Covid-19 infections had been passed.
Officials will scrutinise the latest data on the spread of the disease, and ministers are expected to convene over the weekend before details are finalised for Sunday’s announcement.
Speaking to the BBC, Mr Dowden warned that if there was “any indication that things are starting to get out of control” following the lockdown easing, the Government “won’t hesitate to step back” and reimpose certain bans on interactions.
“But as I have been at pains to say… and as the Prime Minister said to us at Cabinet yesterday, the health of the nation comes first so we need to proceed with caution.
“Expect limited moves to begin with and then, over time, if those are starting to work, we can start to go further and what we will be doing is setting out the different steps we could take further along the path so people know where we’re going.”
In an indication of tensions between the devolved administrations, the Cabinet minister also confirmed the four UK nations could move at “different speeds” when it comes to easing the lockdown.
Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster, speaking to BBC Breakfast, said there would be only “nuanced changes” in the region.
Her Scottish counterpart, Nicola Sturgeon, warned on Thursday that she would not be “pressured” by the Westminster Government into “prematurely” easing restrictions in Scotland.
The Welsh Government has warned of sending out “mixed messages”, after newspaper reports suggested sunbathing and picnics could be permitted as early as Monday.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has criticised the Government’s support for care homes, warning of tragedy in care homes where Covid-19 is spreading – a point made in an editorial to mark VE Day and the debt owed to the generation responsible for winning the battle against Hitler.
“The crisis in our care homes has gone on for too long and we must do everything we can to protect our most vulnerable, many of whom protected our country in its darkest hour,” he wrote in the Telegraph.
His plea came after it emerged the R value – the number of people the average infected individual would spread the virus to – had risen to between 0.75 and 1.0 because of the spread in care homes.
The Royal Hospital Chelsea said nine Chelsea Pensioners had died of coronavirus-related conditions
But Mr Dowden said there was evidence that the Government was getting a “grip” on the situation in care homes.
He told the BBC that more testing was being rolled out, further personal protective equipment (PPE) was being made available and “a lot of” the £2.7 billion in extra funding for local authorities would go to social care.
“We are starting to grip this and it is starting to have an effect,” the former Cabinet Office minister said.
“So while the death rate remains too high, we have seen in the latest figures the number of deaths in care homes start to fall.
“This is a real priority for the Government.”
Meanwhile, the nation clapped from their windows and doorsteps for the seventh week in a row on Thursday evening to show their appreciation of NHS workers and other carers.
And Mr Dowden, in a boost for sport, confirmed he would be holding a meeting next week with football authorities, including the Premier League, to determine whether matches could start to be played behind closed doors.