Apr 6, 2020
United Kingdom COVID-19 Briefing Transcript April 6
British officials held a coronavirus press conference for the UK today, April 6. Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs Dominic Raab says it’s too early to think about to consider exit strategy for the coronavirus lockdown. He briefly commented on Boris Johnson’s current medical condition. Full transcript here:
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Dominic Raab: (00:00)
… beat the coronavirus and see this nation through the challenge ahead. In the last week, under the Prime Minister’s leadership, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Michael Gove, has explained what we’re doing to boost manufacturing capability here at home to meet the rising demand for ventilators and other equipment in the NHS.
Dominic Raab: (00:21)
Business Secretary Alok Sharma has been setting out what the government is doing to support small businesses. And yesterday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock gave an update on what we’re doing to bolster capacity in the NHS, including increasing the number of critical care beds.
Dominic Raab: (00:38)
The FCO is supporting all of these operational priorities, so we’re deployed the diplomatic network right around the world to source and buy ventilators and protective equipment so that we can reinforce the NHS frontline here at home.
Dominic Raab: (00:54)
At the same time, we’re working with other governments and the airlines to bring home as many stranded British nationals as we possibly can, prioritizing our most vulnerable citizens. On commercial flights, we’ve helped over 200,000 UK nationals come home from Spain, 13,000 from Egypt, 8,000 from Indonesia. We’ve also chartered flights from seven different countries bringing home more than 2,000 British nationals. We’ve repatriated a further 1,550 from cruise ships, including most recently the Coral Princess and the Zandaam.
Dominic Raab: (01:33)
And for those travelers who are still stuck abroad, we’re doing everything we can to keep international airports open, to keep commercial flights running, and to charter flights when there are no other options under the new arrangements that I announced last week, and which have now been agreed with 14 airlines. We’ve allocated 75 million pounds to support those arrangements.
Dominic Raab: (01:58)
We’ve already had flights back from countries including Peru, Ghana, and Tunisia. And we’re fixing further flights from India, South Africa, Nepal, and the Philippines, which will fly later on this week. So I want to reassure people every arm of government is doing everything it possibly can to defeat the coronavirus and rise to the challenges that it presents us at home and abroad.
Dominic Raab: (02:23)
Last night, Her Majesty, the Queen reflected on the national spirit of unity and resolve that we’re seeing in our country, as well as the collective effort we need to tackle the disease. From our heroic doctors, nurses and care workers, through to those manning the tills at supermarkets and pharmacies, those driving the lorries and the buses, they’re all worthy of our applause, they’re all worthy of our admiration.
Dominic Raab: (02:49)
And on that note, both the Prime Minister and I would like to thank all of the NHS staff for their truly heroic work, and we urge the public to continue to follow the government’s advice to stay at home, protect the NHS, and save lives. And on that note, I’m going to pass it over to Angela for an update on the latest data.
Angela McLean: (03:08)
Thank you. If I could start with a first slide, this is about the work that we have all been doing in order to stay at home. So what you see that is how much change there’s been in how we use transport. And the orange line, I think is the one that shows us across the whole country how national rail usage has fallen right down to below 20% of what it was during February. And you can see with other ways of moving around, they’re also much, much lower than you would normally expect at this time of year. You can see that on the 23rd of March, so two weeks ago today, it really, really fell very dramatically.
Angela McLean: (03:51)
The efforts all of us are making to stay at home and save lives are working. There are, if I could have the next slide, the growth in the number of cases in our hospitals is not as bad as it would have been if we had not made these efforts. So it is working, but the big question is, is the virus spread slowing down enough to make hospital admissions stabilize and then even full?
Angela McLean: (04:21)
If I could have the next slide, please. So these are people being admitted to hospital with COVID-19 across different regions of Great Britain. And what you can see is that having risen very steadily up until around about the 1st of April, they’re now starting to [inaudible 00:04:42] more complicated behavior and starting, we hope, to slow down. But it really is too soon to see the effects of the big changes we all made to our lives from the 23rd March onwards, because remember, that’s only two weeks ago, and it takes several weeks after you’ve become infected for you to realize that you’re ill enough that you really need to be in hospital. So we’re all watching these numbers very, very carefully and we’re very much hoping that what’s going to happen next is they will at least stop rising.
Angela McLean: (05:19)
Next slide, please. The final set of numbers to look at today is the global comparisons of this very sad deaths from COVID. And this is the most late data. So these are data that show the date of reporting of deaths, and that can take a very long time after someone’s died, and can be rather variable how long that takes in different countries.
Angela McLean: (05:45)
And we will expect even if the number of people being admitted to hospitals and ITU units does start to stabilize, certainly we do expect this number to keep on rising because of course it takes time after people have been admitted to hospital for them either to get better, or very sadly, to die. And then of course it further takes time for those deaths to be reported. So I’ll stop there and hand back to Dominic.
Dominic Raab: (06:11)
Angela, thank you very much. So I’m very happy to take questions. Laura Kuenssberg from the BBC.
Laura Kuenssberg: (06:17)
Thanks very much, Foreign Secretary. Firstly, on the Prime Minister, if the Prime Minister is ill enough to need to be in hospital, how can he be well enough to run the country at a time of national emergency? Wouldn’t it be better if he step back, even briefly, in order to recover properly? And if I could ask the medics, you say that the restrictions are working but too early to tell the longterm effects, but what would your view on what are likely exit strategy from the restrictions be?
Dominic Raab: (06:48)
Thanks, Laura. Well, first of all, on the PM, he was admitted to hospital for tests as a precaution only. And that was because some of the symptoms that he had when he first tested positive had persisted. He’s had a comfortable night in St. Thomas’, he’s in good spirits and he’s being readily updated. And he still remains in charge of the government, and we’re getting on with all of the various strands of work to make sure at home and abroad we can defeat the virus and pull the country through coronavirus and the challenges that undoubtedly we’re facing at the moment. Angela, do you want to comment on the [crosstalk 00:07:21]?
Angela McLean: (07:19)
Yes. Our advice has been very straightforward, that we need a good, long time series of data on all of these stages of infection in order to be able to tell what the impact or the measures that came in on the 23rd of March are going to be. It’s too early to tell yet. We need to carry on following those instructions so that we can work out three weeks later what actually happens in hospitals.
Dominic Raab: (07:50)
Does that give you the answers you need or do you want to come back?
Laura Kuenssberg: (07:54)
I’m just wondering, there is increasing discussion about what the exit strategy from these restrictions should be. I would be interested to hear Angela or professor, what’s his view on what they might anticipate given all the-
… uncertainties around?
Angela McLean: (08:05)
Again, our suggestion has been completely clear. We need to know how well the current restrictions are working before we can say anything sensible about what the next stage might be.
Dominic Raab: (08:19)
The number one priority, Laura, right now is to stop the spread and to make sure that we can get past the peak, and I think that’s the overriding focus of the government right now. And the other decisions can be considered in light of the evidence that we’re taking from Angela and Chris in due course.
Dominic Raab: (08:38)
Beth Rigby from Skye.
Beth Rigby: (08:41)
Thank you. Foreign Secretary, one of your team, African Minister James Dotteridge, today urged the Prime Minister to rest up and let others do the heavy lifting until he gets better. Do you not agree that the Prime Minister at this moment needs to rest, not work? And a question to Professor Witty first, welcome back, it’s nice to see you back. We’re entering the third week of lockdown. The government said it would review the lockdown at the end of this week. Given we’re now approaching the peak of the epidemic, will you be advising the ministers to keep these measures in place? And can you give the British people a sense of whether this will continue for weeks or months? Thank you.
Dominic Raab: (09:27)
Well on your question about the PM, look he’s in charge but you’re right, he’ll continue to take doctor’s advice on what to do next. And we have a team which in the way I describe is full throttle, making sure that his directions and his instructions are being implemented and followed through, whether it’s the purchase of ventilators through to the diplomatic effort to return UK nationals who are stranded abroad. But as ever, the Prime Minister will take the medical advice that he gets from his doctor. Chris?
Chris Witty: (09:58)
Just to add, and I’m basically going to say exactly the same thing that Angela said earlier, which is the key thing is to get to the point where we are confident we’ve reached the peak, and this is now beyond the peak, and at that point I think it is possible to have a serious discussion about all the things we need to do, step by step to move to the next phase of managing this. But I think to start having that discussion until we’re confident, that’s what we’ve got to, would I think be a mistake.
Dominic Raab: (10:26)
Robert Peston, ITV. Oh sorry Beth, did you want to come back?
Beth Rigby: (10:29)
Yeah. Just to follow up Professor Witty though, just to be clear, given that we are approaching the peak and it’s the end of the week whereby the government will review whether to relax restrictions, it seems to me you are saying that the lockdown measures will continue beyond this end of this week?
Chris Witty: (10:45)
Well, I think to be clear, we do not think we know for certain that the peak will be at the end of this week. This was the point that Angela was making earlier, and I think until we’re confident we’re there, that will be too early to start calling the point where we can move to the next phase of this epidemic.
Dominic Raab: (11:03)
The government’s number one priority, its overriding priority is to get past the peak, and we do that by stopping the spread, which is why those decisions and those considerations, Beth, you right referred to, will have to wait until we’re beyond that point. Robert Peston, ITV.
Robert Peston: (11:21)
Couple of questions, probably for the two scientific experts. First for Professor Witty, I think none of us could really know quite how much burden it is even [inaudible 00:11:38] in the peak of health to be prime minister. The normal advice when somebody’s been as ill as the current prime minister is to rest in order to get better. He’s not superhuman. Some would argue that he is taking too much of a risk to the extent to which he’s still working. So as a doctor, Professor Witty, I want you to wonder if you could comment a bit on that.
Robert Peston: (12:02)
Secondly, I completely understand why you are saying we cannot outline a plan for lifting the restrictions until we know whether the current measures are working. But equally the damage from a prolonged economic lockdown will be tremendous in the sense that as an economy, we simply won’t be able to generate revenues, pay taxes to public services and the rest. So I do think the British people would want to feel that the government is working on a workable strategy, and in particular, is it possible to exit the lockdown unless and until we have a program of mass testing for the virus, and unless and until we have technological solutions of tracing people who may have come into contact with those who have the virus?
Dominic Raab: (12:54)
Well, I’ll let Chris comment on the technical aspects, but first of all, just be clear, the prime minister, both in terms of going into Saint Thomas’ yesterday was taking the advice of doctors. So, he’s followed the doctor’s advice there and in terms of his recovering in the days ahead, will continue to do so. And just again on the exit strategy, let’s be clear about this… I’ll let Chris talk to the technical points, but the risk right now is if we take our focus off the strategy, which is beginning to work, is that we won’t get through the peak as fast as we need to, which is why it’s perfectly legitimate to ask the question, but the government’s overriding priority has got to be to keep up the work that and the commitment that so many people have made, to make sure that we maintain the social distancing, we stop the spread, we protect the NHS as we come through the peak. Chris.
Chris Witty: (13:46)
So my advice to the prime minister was to take the medical advice of the excellent NHS doctors who are advising him, and I’m sure he’ll continue to do that. The only bit of advice I gave him in addition to that was as is widely reported, I did advise him to get tested in the first place because I thought that was prudent. But after that, I didn’t wish to muddle my role with him. I’m not his medical practitioner. I’m his advisor on wider issues.
Chris Witty: (14:09)
In terms of the points you make about there must be planning for next phase. Of course there is, and it’s quite complicated. There are a very large number of technical elements which need to be brought together. Testing is one of them, but it also involves, for example, considering the likelihood of a variety of different other technologies including vaccines, including drugs and when they’re likely to be available. I think the one thing I would say at this point is we’ve got to remember just from the health point of view and clearly there are wider social and economic issues as well, but there are at least four different kinds of mortality and ill health we need to take into account over the period of this epidemic. There’s the direct effects of people dying from Coronavirus. There’s the indirect effects of the NHS if it were to become overwhelmed and therefore unable to provide emergency care for either Coronavirus or other areas.
Chris Witty: (15:10)
And all the activities we’re doing at the moment are to make sure that both of those are minimized. But it is really important also to remember that there will be effects from the fact that some healthcare has had to be postponed to make room for this within the NHS. And of course anything that has an impact on the socioeconomic status, particularly of people who are more deprived, will have a longterm health impact as well. And we have to, in our exit strategy, balance all of these different elements, which to some extent can be intention. So, I think it’s just important to understand, this is going to be quite a complicated set of trying to work out how different things fit together as we move to the next phase of this epidemic.
Dominic Raab: (15:51)
Does that address your questions Rob?
Robert Peston: (15:54)
Except, I’m just being thick I suppose, but I don’t really understand why talking about, even if it’s in the long term, the way we’re going to exit, it somehow distracts-
Professor Whitty: (16:03)
… from the imperative of social distancing. I think everyone accepts that social distancing is absolutely vital. But why do people hope that there is a plan to exit? Why would this act reduce the urgency for people who are doing what they’re doing now?
Dominic Raab: (16:18)
Well, the two reassurances I can give you that that works so that we can properly assess the measures that we introduced is in place, but also that we do not want to confuse the message right now because we are not past the peak. To get past the peak, we must have people respecting those guidelines, otherwise we undo all the good work that so many people have achieved and contributed to through their forbearance, particularly as the weather gets a bit warmer.
Angela McLean: (16:44)
We can only make calculations about what we might do next if we have some reasonable data on how large the impact of what we’ve done is so far and we can really only start to collect that from now because we’re now about two weeks after people would have gotten infected on the 23rd of March or later.
Dominic Raab: (17:06)
Thanks, Angela. Victoria McDonald, Channel Four
Victoria McDonald: (17:09)
Thank you very much. I was wondering how does the number of patients in ITU beds in London right now compare with what you’d been planning at this stage? Is there any suggestion that maybe you won’t need as many beds at the ExCel Centre at the Nightingale as you had expected?
Dominic Raab: (17:30)
I don’t know whether Angela or Chris, you want to …
Speaker 1: (17:34)
Chris Witty: (17:34)
I mean there’s a very long answer and a very short answer. The very short answer is our principle aim in both the fantastic response from the general public in terms of social distancing and all the things people have done and not done on that and also off the NHS stuff we built things up is to ensure that the gap between the number of beds available for intensive care and those that are needed is always in a situation where we have some room to spare. If we end up in a situation where we have more ICU beds at all times during this epidemic than we absolutely need to deal both with COVID and other areas, that will be a success. That is something which is critical for our overall aim. So that’s in a sense is what we would like to see is some head room between what we need and what we’ve got available at any given time. Both for COVID and for other conditions.
Dominic Raab: (18:30)
Of course, that’s got to take into account the regional distribution of the need, which is why as well as HMS Nightingale in London, we’ve got the other plans to build in Birmingham, Manchester, Bristol and Harrow Gate. Did you want to come back?
Victoria McDonald: (18:46)
Well, I just wondered where we are at the moment. If you look at the modeling and you refer back to some of the slides you’ve just shown, is it the case that ITU is performing better now than you had actually expected at this point?
Dominic Raab: (19:00)
Well, we’re not remotely complacent and we’re doing everything we can to make sure we’ve not only got the capacity but a bit of room for maneuver as Chris has mentioned.
Dominic Raab: (19:11)
Tom Newton Dunn from The Sun.
Tom Newton Dunn: (19:16)
Foreign secretary, thank you very much. Back on to the prime minister’s condition, if you don’t mind. Two factual questions for you, foreign secretary. Have you spoken to Boris Johnson today either by text or telephone and have you taken over any of his security responsibilities or is he also on that from his hospital bed?
Tom Newton Dunn: (19:34)
To CMO, if I may, can you explain why you recommended he go into the hospital for testing and can you possibly have a go at answering the question the foreign secretary didn’t answer, explaining the contradiction why the prime minister is sick enough to take up a valuable hospital bed, but well enough to still be running the country?
Dominic Raab: (19:52)
Well, Tom, I’m not going to comment on security matters, but I spoke to the PM over the weekend. I chaired the morning meeting that he would normally chair. He’s being kept abreast of all the relevant developments. Of course, in terms of the balance that you described, and I’ll of course let Chris comment, that’s something that he will decide based on the medical advice he’s received from his doctor. Chris, do you want to add-
Chris Witty: (20:16)
Yeah, I want to be clear. It was not me who recommend that he went into hospital, that’s entirely between him and his excellent NHS team. The only thing I recommended was that he got tested in the first point, place. I completely agree that this is a question for discussion between him and his medical advisors who are outstanding.
Dominic Raab: (20:33)
Tom, do you want a come back?
Tom Newton Dunn: (20:36)
Yeah, please. I mean, clearly the country is in some doubt over exactly how well the prime minister is. Mr. [Whitty 00:00:20:42], can you possibly explain, is he in risk of catching pneumonia? Does he have pneumonia? Or is there no chance of that at all?
Professor Whitty: (20:50)
I’m absolutely not going to discuss any individual patient nor, to be clear, do I actually have all the details, nor should I because this is an issue between him and his medical advisors. I can give a general answer which is the majority, the clear majority of people who do end up going to hospital, they end up going into a general bed. They may or may not need oxygen and other things and they don’t need to go further than that. But that is absolutely not a comment on his personal situation, which would be completely inappropriate for me to comment on. It’s just a general comment on how things tend to progress in hospital.
Dominic Raab: (21:25)
Chris Smyth from The Times.
Chris Smyth: (21:26)
Thank you. First can I ask Professor Whitty, the government today has conceded that no antibody tests that it or anyone else has developed is yet good enough for their purposes and scientists talk about working with companies to improve the products on offer because it isn’t nearly yet. Can I ask you about timing? At exactly what stage of the epidemic do you want to be using a mass home antibody test? At what level of population, level of infection would this be needed? Does there come a point where if no improvement can be made, the tests we have now will have to be good enough?
Chris Smyth: (21:59)
Can I also ask, foreign secretary, you chaired the coronavirus meeting this morning, you’re here this afternoon, if the country and the prime minister needs it, do you feel ready to take charge of government?
Dominic Raab: (22:12)
Chris, you want to go first?
Chris Witty: (22:14)
Okay. On the antibody tests, so the antibody tests are at there most useful at a later stage of the epidemic. At this point in time, we would expect quite a small proportion of the population has probably got antibodies. There’s two reasons for that. There’s the proportion actually infected and then there’s a period of time between someone getting an infection and antibodies being routinely available, routinely detectable. It depends which kind of antibody you’re talking about, how soon that is. But most of the tests for, most of the labs who’ve looked at this would say 21, 28 days would be the kind of timescale you’d be talking about. They do tend to be more effective later in the epidemic.
Chris Witty: (23:02)
In terms of the current tests we’ve got at the moment, you’ve got to remember this is a new disease to which we have had absolutely no knowledge at the beginning of January, and inevitably we’re feeling our way to some extent. I am very confident we will develop antibody tests, whether they be lab-based or a dipstick-based over the next period, I’m very confident of that.
Chris Witty: (23:25)
But the fact that we have not in our first pass in the first things that people were produced got ones which are highly effective is not particularly surprising to anybody who understands how tests are developed. I would expect those to continue to improve both on, potentially on the dipstick side and definitely on the lab side, which would be available in due course through the NHS over time. The more accurate they are, the more useful they need to be for us. They will become more accurate as time goes by. I think the situation we’ll find ourselves in in a few months and possibly a few weeks will be considerably different to what we find ourselves in at the moment. But I think it made a lot of –
Chris Witty: (24:03)
… sense to get started early on this, because this is clearly something which, in the long run is going to be very important for how we manage this epidemic.
Dominic Raab: (24:11)
And look, on the question to me, the prime minister is in charge, he’s leading the government, and giving directions as and when required. And of course, as you mentioned, I chaired the 9:15 morning meeting, the whole team is focused on delivering those instructions, so I’m not going to get into any hypotheticals. Did you want to come back on either of those points?
Chris Smyth: (24:31)
[crosstalk 00:24:30]. Professor [Witty 00:00:32], you talked about the lab based tests. Does that suggest that we may have to give up on an idea of a home based, instant reading test, and just go back to a system where you have to send results back to a lab?
Chris Witty: (24:43)
No, it doesn’t. It just means that, inevitably the reason that the UK went for quite a lot of tests of different types to begin with is to try a variety of different ones and see which ones work. We expect the technology to improve over time, so I certainly do not think we will be giving up on this at this point. But inevitably, it’s going to take a while before we get to the optimal test performance. That is, it would be very surprising if first out of the gate, we’ve got to the best outcome that we could for these kinds of tests.
Chris Smyth: (25:13)
Anna from the telegraph.
Dominic Raab, could you first just clarify your answer to [inaudible 00:25:20] earlier? And are you saying that you have not spoken to the prime minister today? And secondly, which you can see, that there is an importance to giving businesses an idea of when, of what kind of exit strategy the government has, and a rough idea of how long it would take, and whether it would be say, standard by region or by type of person? And are these kind of things under consideration? And just a question for Chris Witty, in your medical opinion, should individuals who’ve been hospitalized with coronavirus continue to work from their hospital beds?
Dominic Raab: (25:57)
Thanks. So, I spoke to the PM on Saturday, was the last time I spoke to him in person. And in relation to your other questions, so, obviously we’re very mindful of the challenges businesses are facing, small businesses, all employers, and of course the workforce as well. But the risk is, if we start taking our eye off the ball of tackling the greater virus, stopping the spread, and getting through the peak, we risk delaying the point at which we could, in the future, take those decisions on easing restrictions. So, it is really important right now to keep the overriding focus on maintaining the discipline that we’ve had, keeping adherence to the guidelines that the government has set out, and making sure that we stop the spread of coronavirus.
Chris Witty: (26:45)
And making a general point as a doctor, patients of mine, and to be clear, that is definitely not the prime minister, but patients of mine, there are some who are in a hospital bed but are perfectly capable of managing massively complicated things from the hospital bed, others clearly are not. That is absolutely a conversation between the individual and the doctors and nurses who are looking after them.
Dominic Raab: (27:07)
Did you want to come back on either of those points?
Yeah, I mean, on the exit strategy, we know that different departments are already starting to look at what kind of things can be done in their fields, and I’m [inaudible 00:27:21] number 10 on that. Wouldn’t it help business confidence to give some sort of idea of what’s on the table?
Dominic Raab: (27:29)
Well, I think the risk is, and it would undermine business confidence if we took our foot off the pedal and eased up on the restrictions right now. And as a result of that, we found that we weren’t stopping the spread of the disease as quickly as we otherwise could. And I think a lot of business community will understand that. Of course, all of the review and the measures to make sure that we can review the effectiveness of the measures in the way that Angela has described, all of that work is going on.
Dominic Raab: (28:02)
[Stephan 00:28:02] from [inaudible 00:04:02].
Thank you. Foreign secretary, thousands of small businesses across the country are waiting on advice about when [inaudible 00:28:12] will be in practice. Can you say today if there will be wage relief for all those businesses by this month’s payday? And furthermore, with only 1000 business lines so far agreed upon by banks through your business loan scheme, does this show that banks are [inaudible 00:28:34] to loan out to businesses? And what more can the government do to ensure that banks act in the national interest through this time?
Dominic Raab: (28:42)
Well, the chancellor’s already announced a 330 billion pound package to support businesses right the way through to employees. He will set out the further detail as necessary, as soon as practical. Of course, we do want to encourage banks to be lending and providing the liquidity, particularly that small and medium size businesses need, so that is important and we do want that message along with the support we’ve given to small businesses and banks, to be conveyed as clearly as possible and to be [inaudible 00:29:10].
Just as a follow-up, I do understand that have said this to banks and you have said that it is important to act on this, but is there anything you can actually do to twist the arms of banks to ensure they do act in this way?
Dominic Raab: (29:23)
Well, the treasury ministers are in regular contact with the banks. We’re looking at both what they need, but also critically, how we get the finance to the businesses which are viable but are just struggling with the challenge of coronavirus. And we want to make sure, particularly those vulnerable small businesses and medium size businesses can see their way through this crisis. And I know the chancellor and the treasury team are doing everything they can to make sure that that can be done. Thank you all very much.