Britain on Sunday reported its lowest daily rise in coronavirus deaths in nearly four weeks as the government resisted calls for an early easing of countrywide lockdown rules.
The number of people who have died from the virus has risen by 413 to 20,732, officials said Sunday, the lowest reported daily increase in fatalities in all of April.
The last time the health department recorded a smaller increase was on March 31, at 381 deaths.
Despite the slowdown — which came at a weekend when the toll has often been lower — Environment Secretary George Eustice said now was not the time to relax strict social distancing rules.
“There are encouraging signs of progress,” he said at the daily Downing Street press briefing.
“But before we consider it safe to adjust any of the current system distancing measures, we must be satisfied that we have met the five tests set last week.”
These included making sure the British health service NHS was able to cope, and a “sustained and consistent” fall in the daily death rate.
The UK was initially placed into lockdown on March 23. This was extended on April 16 and a review is due on May 7.
Eustice echoed statements made by Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab — who has been deputising for Boris Johnson as the prime minister recovers from contracting the virus — earlier on Sunday that the lockdown rules would “be with us for some time” and were the “new normal”.
Raab told the BBC: “We do want to look at when it’s safe, when it’s responsible, at ways to allow more outside activities to take place but, again, we have got to have the evidence that it’s a surefooted step and doesn’t allow the coronavirus to get a grip back on the country.”
There have been calls for the rules to be relaxed from within the ruling Conservative Party.
The new opposition Labour party leader Keir Starmer meanwhile wrote to Johnson on Sunday asking for details on a potential lifting of restrictions.
He accused the government of “mistakes” at the beginning of the crisis and added: “The government cannot fall short in its preparations for what happens when the time is right for Lockdown measures to be lifted.”
Sunday’s figures also showed another 4,463 people had tested positive for the virus, bringing the total to almost 153,000.
– Johnson returning -Raab told Sky News that Johnson would be back in his Downing Street office on Monday after recovering and was in “good spirits” and “raring to go”.
He has been recuperating at the British prime ministerial retreat, Chequers, outside London since his release from hospital on April 12.
Despite Sunday’s lower death toll Britain remains one of the worst-hit countries in the world by the Virus.
The government has been under scrutiny, especially over shortages in personal protective equipment and a lack of widespread testing, particularly of frontline health and social care workers.
– Influence row –
Meanwhile a row continues over the role played by Johnson’s chief advisor, Dominic Cummings, after it emerged he attended meetings of the main scientific group advising ministers on the coronavirus pandemic.
Downing Street denied that Cummings and another advisor, Ben Warner, were members of what is supposed to be the politically independent Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) but said they attended so as to “understand better” the scientific debates concerning this emergency”.
A former Conservative frontbencher, David Davis, tweeted: “We should publish the membership of SAGE: remove any non-scientist members”.