CABINET big guns are torn over how and when to end the lockdown now costing Britain £2.4billion a day.
They are trapped in a “lives versus money” row with just 24 hours to go before the three-week restrictions ordered by Boris Johnson ends.
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Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Home Secretary Priti Patel are among those who fear the action to halt the spread of coronavirus is worse than the disease.
They are pushing for a three-week extension, with an easing of restrictions as early as Monday May 4.
But Health Secretary Matt Hancock and Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove warn this could end the treatment just as it starts to work.
They want the lockdown in place for another six weeks from now, to be re-assessed on May 25 after the Whitsun weekend.
A Cabinet source said: “It’s right and proper that we took action. But we must phase it out at the earliest opportunity.
'NEED A GAME PLAN'
It could lead to many more deaths than the virus itself as the economy tanks, people lose jobs and families get poorer and sicker. We need a game plan for ending this.”
Caretaker PM Dominic Raab can’t settle the dispute because his role is to chair meetings and carry out his boss’s orders.
And with Boris Johnson likely to be away for another three weeks, the government is in danger of becoming rudderless.
An insider said: “There’s a bit of a power vacuum. We’re in the middle of a global pandemic and we need him back — but he’s got to be left to rest and get well.”
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson fears a longer schools closure will dash the life chances of poor and vulnerable kids.
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Ministers had planned for one in five pupils, the children of key workers, to stay in class yet only two per cent did so.
And the Chancellor is shocked that his job retention scheme attracted nine million claims — three times more than he expected.
The overall cost to the economy will be nudging £50billion by the end of the long Easter weekend.
Even if they agree a date, ministers still have to work out how far to go in returning Britain to normal.
Medics and scientists warn that a swift return could lead to a second wave of the virus, with an even more devastating effect.
One option is to lift restrictions on different regions or sectors. Some are pushing for young people — less prone to serious illness from the virus — to return to work first.
But a sceptic remarked: “It’s the over-50s with the money and experience who are the wealth creators. We need them back soon.”
Without a game plan, there are fears that tough limits could still be in place this time next year.
STAY HOME & PROTECT THE NATION
By Mark Harper, former government chief whip
CORONAVIRUS continues to indiscriminately target people across the UK and the world, a sobering fact demonstrated by our own Prime Minister’s battle with this dreadful virus.
The First Secretary of State, Dominic Raab, has rightly said that there is a huge team spirit behind the Prime Minister, willing him on to get back to full health and back where he rightly belongs – leading the Government and our country from 10 Downing Street.
It is important that the business of Government continues at pace during the Prime Minister’s temporary absence from the Downing Street tiller, even if that is for some time. Decisions, even significant and difficult decisions, must still be taken by the Cabinet as and when necessary.
In this country, we have a system of Government where key decisions are taken by the Cabinet. It is, of course, true that the Prime Minister has significant personal authority, especially where there is disagreement.
However, while the Prime Minister is out of action, his authority will be exercised by Dominic Raab, the First Secretary of State, because he is the Prime Minister’s chosen deputy.
Ministers, I am sure, will be very conscious of the fact that it was the Prime Minister who made that choice and he will expect it to be respected. I am sure the Prime Minister will not be amused to read about what has been going on in Cabinet committees in his Sunday newspapers.
When the Prime Minister announced the current restrictions on 23 March, he said this would be reviewed after three weeks. The time for this review is next week.
Given we are yet to reach the peak of the virus, I am quite sure that next week the Government will formally decide that the current restrictions will have to stay in place for another three weeks into May.
The data on the number of new cases is starting to suggest that the current social distancing measures are working but continuing with them for another period is necessary to ensure we protect the NHS and save lives.
That’s why people need to continue to stay at home over the Easter weekend, apart from the four allowed exceptions. Thinking about the future, we will only be able to return to something like normal life once we have created a vaccine.
This is likely to take somewhere between 12-18 months and so, in the meantime, we will need a recovery plan that continues to protect the health of the nation whilst allowing us to get the economy going again.
The Government must work on that recovery plan at pace whilst it continues with the current restrictions and it must also be as open as possible with the public about what that plan will look like as and when the pieces are put into place. There are three reasons for this.
First, whilst the vast majority of the population has been doing a fantastic job complying with the rules so far, the longer the restrictions are in place, the more likely we are to continue this level of compliance if the public can see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Second, over the coming days and weeks, the many people in our country who are self-employed or who run larger companies are going to need to take decisions about the future of their businesses.
So we need to give them as much information as we can, as soon as we can, about the future so they are prepared to take the calculated risks necessary to keep their businesses going. That’s vitally important if we’re going to minimise the economic cost of defeating this virus.
Finally, any recovery plan is likely to involve a significant volume of testing, with contact tracing and perhaps the use of technology seen in countries like South Korea to ensure any resurgence of virus can be dealt with swiftly.
As we have seen from the challenges facing the Government on testing for NHS frontline staff, it takes time to get this capacity in place.
We need to make sure than when the Government is confident that the evidence is in place to allow a relaxation of the current measures, our testing capability, and all that goes with it, is ready to be rolled out quickly.
I am confident that the Cabinet, led by the First Secretary of State Dominic Raab in the Prime Minister’s absence, will continue working hard and making the necessary decisions when they need to be made so that the PM, upon his return to health, can hit the ground running and, as the Prime Minister’s great hero Sir Winston Churchill would say, take “action this day”.
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