The government is facing pressure to give businesses “hope” after a warning that social distancing could last for the rest of the year.
Senior Tory MP Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown said it must discuss a return to normality or risk businesses folding.
The hospitality industry has warned that maintaining social distancing until next year would be catastrophic.
Cabinet minister Brandon Lewis said there was a difficult balance to strike between health and economic concerns.
It comes as after the government’s chief medical adviser, Prof Chris Whitty, said the UK would have to live with some disruptive social measures for at least the rest of the year.
Meanwhile, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has outlined ideas for the initial easing of the lockdown.
Sir Geoffrey, treasurer of the influential 1922 Committee of backbench Conservatives, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that some companies are “likely to cease trading” unless they receive “some form of indication” of when they can resume business as usual.
“We have to, on behalf of the businesses of this country, begin to give them a little bit of hope as to when we might be able to get back to normality,” he said.
He stressed that the next steps must be carried out “gradually”.
In response, Northern Ireland Secretary Mr Lewis said certain businesses are “starting to reopen more stores” with social distancing measures in place.
However, Mr Lewis said “we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves” and the best way to protect the public and the NHS was to stay at home.
“One of the most damaging things for our economy would be if we came out of lockdown too early,” he said, adding that this would risk a second peak.
Ms Sturgeon told the Scottish government’s daily news conference that it was not possible to return immediately to how life was before the virus and that Covid-19 would be a “fact of life for some time to come”.
She unveiled an initial set of proposals for the eventual easing of restrictions in the country, which suggested:
- people will have to adjust to a new reality, with some distancing measures in place until at least 2021
- children must be educated and businesses must reopen but continuing efforts will be needed to suppress the virus
- public gatherings will still be banned and pubs will stay closed for the foreseeable future
- people with symptoms will still have to stay at home and social distancing and hand hygiene will remain important
The plan also suggested that testing, contact tracing and isolation of cases will be vital to keeping the virus under control and it might be necessary to re-impose a lockdown with little notice if there is a danger of another spike in infections.
‘Absolutely colossal increase’
BBC Newsnight’s Nicholas Watt said that in a “very tense” meeting of the 1922 Committee’s executive, members voiced fears that unless the lockdown is eased within the next few weeks, the UK may no longer have much of a functioning economy.
The director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies said the UK’s budget deficit is set to see “an absolutely colossal increase to a level not seen in peacetime”.
Paul Johnson told the BBC that the economic impact of coronavirus was likely to push the deficit to as high as £260bn.
BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg said it was “more likely than not” that the government would spell out “possible flexing and bending” of the restrictions around the time of its next review of the lockdown on 7 May.
She said ideas were being considered that could allow for “a semblance of normal life” while maintaining social distancing.
No firm decisions have been taken yet, she added, but considerations included staggering rush hours, employers introducing shift patterns, and different year groups attending school on different days.
Leisure industry body Hospitality UK said reopening restaurants, bars and hotels without a plan “would be catastrophic”, adding that many businesses in the sector would not be able to open with distancing measures in place.
Speaking during Wednesday’s daily coronavirus briefing, Prof Whitty said it was “wholly unrealistic” to expect life would suddenly return to normal soon.
He said “in the long run” the ideal way out would be via a “highly effective vaccine” or drugs to treat the disease.
But he warned that the chance of having those within the next calendar year was “incredibly small”.
“This disease is not going to be eradicated, it is not going to disappear,” he said.
The latest figures show a further 759 people have died with the virus in UK hospitals, bringing the total number of deaths to 18,100.
Face mask advice
Meanwhile, the government’s scientific advisers will present their findings to ministers later on whether the public should wear face masks.
No decision has yet been made, but the expectation is that the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) will recommend that the public should not wear medical face masks, Newsnight’s Nicholas Watt said.
But the scientists may well say that people should be free to wear their own masks or a scarf across their face as they do provide some benefit, he added.
Prof Martin Marshall, chairman of the Royal College of GPs, said advising the public to wear masks on a voluntary basis rather than a mandatory one “makes sense”.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “In most cases there’s no researched evidence to support wearing a mask if you’re basically fit and well,” he said, adding that it can lead to a “higher risk” of infection if people touch the mask and their eyes.
In other developments:
- The New Zealand nurse credited with helping to save the prime minister’s life described him as just “another patient we were trying to do our best for”
- Jenny Harries, England’s deputy chief medical officer, has revealed she believes she has had coronavirus – leading her to take 10 days off work
- The earliest “realistic” point at which schools in England could start reopening would be 1 June, the head of the Association of School and College Leaders has said
- Banks have approved less than half of applications made under the government’s Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme
- Delays in diagnosing and treating cancer could lead to more years of lost life than with Covid-19, a leading cancer expert has said
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