Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has stepped up pressure on the government to set out an “exit strategy” for lifting lockdown measures that were put in place on 23 March to slow the spread of coronavirus.His intervention comes as a series of Conservative backers, who have donated millions of pounds to the party, have urged the government to begin loosening the restrictions to allow the economy to start up again.
The British retail industry’s lobby group and its main trade union has issued new guidance to retailers in preparation for an anticipated easing of measures and the reopening of more stores.
In his call for an exit strategy, Sir Keir said in a letter to Mr Johnson that it was essential ministers learned lessons from mistakes that have been made in dealing with the crisis so far.
He added that the UK is in danger of falling behind other countries, as well devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales, which were already engaged in “adult” conversations with their citizens as to how the restrictions could be eased.
Ministers have so far resisted calls for an exit strategy, arguing it risks undermining their central message that people need to stay home to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
However, Sir Keir’s letter echoes concerns expressed by some senior Conservatives alarmed at the mounting damage to the economy being caused by the lockdown.The Labour leader said any exit strategy would only be effective if the government puts the necessary planning, investment and infrastructure in place early.
He wrote: “Simply acting as if this discussion is not happening is not credible, especially when other governments and our own devolved administrations have been able to communicate so much more.
“The British public have made great sacrifices to make the lockdown work. They deserve to be part of an adult conversation about what comes next. If we want to take people with us and secure their consent, this is necessary now.
“This is a national crisis and therefore needs a national response. The coming weeks require urgent preparation and planning from the government. We have already seen the consequences of poor planning and preparation. That cannot happen again.”
Sir Keir said that while Labour fully supported the lockdown, the government had been too slow to put it in place.
He also said the government had been too slow to increase testing and too slow to get personal protective equipment (PPE) to frontline NHS and care staff.
He continued: “If we are to learn from these mistakes, the government cannot fall short in its preparation for what happens when the time is right for lockdown measures to be gradually lifted.
“The UK government is behind the curve on this. I fear we are falling behind the rest of the world. That is why we need to see a significant step-change in the government’s response to this pandemic.
“Decisions need to be taken quicker and communication with the public needs to be clearer.”
Conservative backers Michael Spencer and Peter Hargreaves, the banker Sir Henry Angest, Phones4u founder John Caudwell and restaurateur Richard Caring all told The Sunday Times they wanted to see some reopening of the economy.
Steve Morgan, the former boss of the house builder Redrow, told the paper: “We’re actually in danger that the medicine – if you want to call the lockdown that – is more harmful than the cure.
“I’m strongly in favour of getting the country back to work. This is not about profit; this is about saving the country from going bankrupt, from mass unemployment, from businesses going bust, people losing their livelihoods and homes.”
Professor John Edmunds, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) which is advising the government on its response to the outbreak, has warned any relaxation risked an upsurge of new cases.
He told the Observer: “The strategy behind plans to lift the lockdown is based on the idea (that) you could then control the epidemic by testing people for infections before tracing their contacts.
“However, if we lifted the lockdown now, the testing and tracing system would be overwhelmed. We will have to get case numbers down a lot lower than they are now before we can think of lifting current regulations.”
The British Retail Consortium (BRC) lobby group and the Usdaw retail union have offered social distancing guidance for non-food retail stores ahead of an expected easing of lockdown measures.
The guidance draws on government advice and lessons learned by the “essential” retailers that have been allowed to stay open during the lockdown, such as supermarkets and pharmacies.
It includes providing hand sanitiser for customers, encouraging shoppers to visit stores alone, limiting numbers in shops at any one time, keeping customers two metres apart, installing protective screens at tills, as well as stepping-up cleaning and encouraging cashless payments.
The government said on Friday it was too early to lift the lockdown, though economic data indicates Britain’s economy is crumbling under the strain.
British retail sales fell by the most on record in March as a surge in food buying for the lockdown was dwarfed by a plunge in sales of clothing and most other goods.
The slump is likely to be even worse in April.