Ministers 'underestimating the public' by refusing to discuss lockdown exit strategy

18 April 2020, 18:05

File photo: Mounted police officers speak to people on Primrose Hill, London, as the UK continues in lockdown
File photo: Mounted police officers speak to people on Primrose Hill, London, as the UK continues in lockdown. Picture: PA

By Megan White

Ministers are “underestimating the public” by refusing to discuss their exit strategy for ending the coronavirus lockdown, senior Tory MPs have warned.

The Government has set out what needs to happen before it will consider lifting the measures but has not explained how the easing of restrictions will take place.

Tory backbenchers and former ministers say there needs to be "strategic clarity" and that the argument put forward by the Government about not wanting to "confuse the message" is not the right way forward.

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It was reported earlier on Saturday that the Government is considering a “three-stage strategy,” and that social distancing measures could be gradually eased between May and July.

Former Brexit secretary David Davis said: "Other countries have been very open about what they've done.

"There's really no reason, there's no argument for not debating and discussing with all the facts available.

"There are lots and lots of benefits of being open about this. The argument that was put, that we don't want to confuse the message, I think is just wrong. It underestimates the public. The public understand that there are phases to this."

Mr Davis said the data underlining the strategy should also be put in the public domain.

Reflecting on how much is going on - teams working on a vaccine and some working on other aspects of the next stage of the pandemic - he said: "There's actually comparatively little data in the public domain, and there should be much more."

Former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith said the Government should stop treating people "like children" by refusing to discuss exit strategies.

He told The Times: "The Government is going to have to accept and admit we are coming out of lockdown.

"We need to trust the British people and not treat them like children. We must respect their common sense. They need to know that the sun is rising at some point, in an economic sense."

In the wake of the calls for more discussion, a Cabinet Office spokesperson said on Saturday: "The Government has already set out five clear tests to consider before making any adjustment to its approach.

"At all times we have been consistently guided by scientific advice to protect lives.

"The current advice from Sage is that relaxing any of the measures could risk damage to public health, our economy, and the sacrifices we have all made.

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"Only when the evidence suggests that it is safe to do, and the scientific advice provides for it, will we adjust these measures."

Tobias Ellwood, chairman of the Commons Defence Select Committee, said a "general road map" spelling out the conditions - without putting a timetable on it - would be "well received" by the nation.

Asked if Mr Johnson's absence due to being ill with Covid-19 is a factor in ministers' reluctance to talk about what they plan to do next, Mr Ellwood said it has been "a real setback", adding that the PM is the best communicator in Government.

Mr Ellwood said there is "no major decision" needed in the next three weeks.

He said maintaining public support is "absolutely critical", adding: "My concern has been that there has been a clarion call for an exit strategy when the Government must make clear there is no exit from this until a vaccine is procured and delivered to a sizeable proportion of the population, therefore the longevity of this needs to be managed.

"Letting the nation know what is coming round the corner helps keep minds focused and people on board.

"So I fully understand the concern of diluting that central message during the lockdown, but I see three phases to this."

Mr Ellwood has already posted on Twitter about the three phases: a continuation of the lockdown; a post-lockdown pre-vaccine period in which there is a phased easing of restrictions in some sectors and reopening of schools; and a vaccine rollout.

At the Saturday evening press briefing, Local Government Secretary Robert Jenrick said there are "a number of positive indicators which give us cause for hope, and to believe that there is light at the end of the tunnel".

But he added: "Don't lose what's been hard won over the last few weeks.

"Keep adhering to the measures, keep respecting the advice from the clinicians, and if we do that together as a society, then in the weeks to come there may be opportunities to begin very cautiously to ease the lockdown measures.

"But that day is not today, as the First Secretary said, just a few days ago."

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