The Government relaxed its key rule for easing the lockdown on Tuesday amid increasing signs that Boris Johnson is preparing to refine restrictions within days.
Five tests which must be met before the lockdown can be altered were set out earlier this month.
The first four have either been met or are close to being met. The fifth hurdle, which ministers have always said is the most important, was described on official Government documents on Monday as a confidence that “any adjustments to the current measures will not risk a second peak of infections”.
On Tuesday the wording was changed to say the aim was to avoid a second peak “that overwhelms the NHS” - making it easier for ministers to say the test has been met.
TOPSHOT - Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson pauses for a minute's silence to honour UK key workers, including NHS staff, health and social care workers, who have died during the coronavirus outbreak inside 10 Downing Street, central London on April 28, 2020. - Britain's health ministry on April 27 the total toll of those having died after testing positive for COVID-19 in hospital rose to 21,092. The figure includes 82 staff from the National Health Service and 60 social care workers, according to minister Matt Hancock. (Photo by Stefan Rousseau / POOL / AFP) (Photo by STEFAN ROUSSEAU/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, has repeatedly trumpeted the fact that the NHS has never been overwhelmed during the whole of the current crisis, which means that ministers could now argue that the NHS would be able to cope even if infections rose again.
Mr Johnson is expected to decide later this week whether to start easing parts of the lockdown after being given fresh scientific advice on the risks to public health of each measure under consideration, such as reopening schools, shops or offices.
In an apparent sign of what is to come, Downing Street announced that from Monday that all garden centres and “non essential” retailers will be allowed to operate click and collect services as long as customers remain outside the store to collect their goods.
The Telegraph has also learnt that ministers are in talks with business leaders over a flexible furlough scheme that will allow them to bring their workforce back part-time and share the cost with the Treasury, which could form a central pillar of a plan to get Britain back to work.
In another sign that preparations are being made for a relaxation of lockdown, Michael Gove, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, also disclosed that the Government is building up stockpiles of non-surgical face masks which could be distributed to the public. Mr Johnson has been holding meetings with Cabinet ministers this week to discuss how different sectors could start coming out of lockdown, but may not attend Wednesday's Prime Minister’s Questions. Senior parliamentary officials have been told that Dominic Raab, the First Secretary of State, is likely to deputise for the Prime Minister, as he did last week. Downing Street, which has insisted Mr Johnson is working full time and is in good health, has for the past two days refused to confirm whether he will attend Prime Minister’s Questions, with a final decision expected to be made on Wednesday morning.
Britain's Health Secretary Matt Hancock arrives in Downing Street in central London on April 28, 2020 for the daily coronavirus briefing. - Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday made his first public appearance since being hospitalised with coronavirus three weeks ago, saying Britain was beginning to "turn the tide" on the outbreak but rejecting calls to ease a nationwide lockdown. (Photo by DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS / AFP) (Photo by DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP via Getty Images)
New Government figures showed that the overall death toll from coronavirus when deaths in care homes and in the community are added to hospital deaths is now on track to be the worst in Europe. However, the death rate continues to fall, and the number of people in hospital with the virus has dropped by 14 per cent in the past week, with more than 3,200 critical care beds now empty. The first of the government's four tests - evidence that the NHS can cope across the UK; a sustained fall in death rates; a decrease in the rate of infection, and enough testing and personal protective equipment to meet demand - were unchanged on the slides displayed at the government press conference on Tuesday. However, the subtle change to the fifth test will make it easier for the Prime Minister to say it has been met, as the NHS has not been overwhelmed so far and has huge extra capacity in the form of temporary NHS Nightingale Hospitals which have only treated a handful of patients so far. It will be seen as a reflection of the shift in the balance of power since Mr Johnson returned to Downing Street on Monday, as Mr Hancock has repeatedly used the stricter form of the fifth test in daily press conferences.
A medical worker sprays hand sanitiser on an essential worker at a drive-in testing facility the novel coronavirus COVID-19, in east London on April 25, 2020. - British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is recovering after contracting the new coronavirus, is "in very good shape", Health Secretary Matt Hancock said on Friday. (Photo by DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS / AFP) (Photo by DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP via Getty Images)
A Downing Street spokesman insisted there had been "no change" to the policy, and that the official wording had merely been changed to reflect what Mr Raab had set out when he first announced the tests on April 16. In another significant shift by Downing Street, garden centres and other businesses were told they can reopen from Wednesday to provide a click and collect service. Gardeners will be able to buy what they want as long as they order it and pay for it online or over the phone and pick up their orders without entering the store. The rule applies to all retailers, giving a route back to trading for thousands of businesses. James Barnes, chairman of the Horticultural Trades Association, said it was “good news” that garden centres could operate click and collect services, but said they needed to be allowed to open fully to get the volume of trade they needed to survive. Government sources confirmed that garden centres would be among the first businesses allowed to reopen fully when lockdown measures are eased, perhaps as soon as next week, as long as they maintain social distancing in the same way that supermarkets have done.
© PA Wire/PA ImagesSonya Mathews from Shield Force, one of the volunteer initiatives that are producing protective face shields at Edinburgh's Summerhall which is a community of small businesses and creatives that have had to adapt and innovate during the coronavirus outbreak. (Photo by Jane Barlow/PA Images via Getty Images)
The Telegraph has also learnt that ministers are in talks with business leaders over flexible furlough scheme that will allow them to bring their workforce back part-time and share the cost with the Treasury. It would mean certain industries being gradually weaned off state funding at different times until the furlough scheme is eventually wound down. Giving firms the chance to reopen in stages, rather than having to take on the burden of their entire wage bill in one go, is seen by industry leaders as key to getting the economy moving again, as Boris Johnson has said he wants to do. While the Treasury insisted on Tuesday night that no decisions had been taken, The Telegraph understands that Chancellor Rishi Sunak is now considering a range of proposals for how the scheme could be tapered once the initial furlough scheme ends in June.
There are fears that a sudden withdrawal of the scheme, which is currently paying 80 percent of wages for 4 million workers, will create a “cliff edge” for thousands of firms and lead to mass lay-offs over the summer. On Tuesday night a senior business leader argued that in order to transition out of the lockdown, ministers needed to change the scheme from a “life support package” - with the state effectively paying to keep workers at home - to an “economic stimulus” which would incentivise firms to bring employees back part-time and eventually full-time. Separately, a poll of 1,000 employers commissioned by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development has found that 76 percent of firms that have furloughed workers would support changes to enable workers to return on reduced hours.
Stay at home to stop coronavirus spreading- here iswhat you can and can't do. If you think you have the virus, don't go to the GP or hospital, stay indoors andget advice online.Onlycall NHS 111if you cannot cope with your symptoms at home; your condition gets worse; or your symptoms do not get better after seven days. In parts ofWaleswhere 111 isn't available, call NHS Direct on 0845 46 47. InScotland, anyone with symptoms is advised to self-isolate for seven days. InNorthern Ireland, call your GP.