The foreign secretary has defended the government easing of lockdown measures in England from Monday, despite the country’s Covid-19 alert system indicating high levels of transmission.
Dominic Raab said England is “transitioning” from level four, when there should be enforced social distancing measures, to level three, when they can start to be relaxed.
He said the approach is “cautious”.
Some scientists advising ministers have voiced concerns about easing the rules.
Mr Raab told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show the government had “taken evidence from scientists” and has met the five tests it said were needed to relax restrictions.
His comments come a day before schools can reopen and up to six people can meet outside in England.
Vulnerable people in England and Wales who have been asked to stay home since lockdown began will also be able to go outdoors again.
“Because we have made that progress, steadily, slowly, surely, week in, week out, we can very gradually, very carefully, take the steps that we are taking tomorrow,” Mr Raab said.
He did not specify when England would move to level three, saying this would be “decided independently by experts”.
The government would be able to implement “targeted” measures in areas that saw an “uptick” in cases, he added.
Prof Peter Openshaw, who is part of a body advising the government on respiratory viruses, told the programme that ministers must proceed with “great, great care”.
Asked whether the government is proceeding too quickly, he said there is “a pretty unanimous message now that we need to take this slowly”.
“We need to evaluate the effect of each step before we move to the next one,” he said.
Ed Davey, acting leader of the Liberal Democrats, said Mr Raab had “failed to provide a convincing explanation as to why lockdown is easing despite the fact that the Covid-19 risk is still classified as ‘high'”.
In a statement, he called on ministers to “explain what evidence is guiding their decisions”.
Mr Raab also said 25,000 tracers are part of England’s test and trace system, which aims to enable a move from blanket lockdown restrictions towards the more localised, targeted measures.
However, Steve Reed MP, shadow communities secretary, said the system is “in total chaos” because the government “got the planning wrong” and was “too slow to involve councils”.
“If they get test and trace wrong, the country risks another catastrophic spike of infection that will lead to a second lockdown,” he said.
Labour has called for councils to be given powers to enforce local lockdowns, a guarantee that no one will have to wait more than 24 hours to receive either a test or test results, and the roll-out of an app to assist with contact tracing.
On Saturday, some scientific advisers to the government said the decision to ease lockdown measures is premature, describing it as a “political decision” and stressing that the test and trace system should be “fully working” first.
Estimates by the Office for National Statistics suggest there are currently 8,000 new cases of coronavirus per day in England alone.
The R value – the number of people each infected person passes the virus on to, on average – is currently between 0.7 and 0.9 in the UK. If it goes above 1.0 the number of cases will increase exponentially, but if it stays below then the disease will eventually peter out.
Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden admitted on Saturday the current R value did not leave “much headroom”.
And school governors are asking ministers to drop plans for all primary pupils in England to return before the summer holidays, saying the ambition piles pressure on schools “when actually it wouldn’t be safe”.
Meanwhile, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said Scotland would stay on a “slow and steady” route out of restrictions.
Scotland is in its third day of eased restrictions, with up to a maximum of eight people from two separate households able to meet outdoors.
In Northern Ireland, groups of up to six people who do not live together can meet outdoors, while in Wales, any number of people from two different households will be able to meet each other outside from Monday.
A further 85 people have died in English hospitals after testing positive for coronavirus. In Wales, another 11 deaths were reported and Scotland registered nine. These figures tend to be lower on weekends. The full UK figures will be released later.
In other developments:
- Labour MP Rosie Duffield has resigned as a Labour whip and apologised after she met her partner in April for a walk while they were living separately, before meetings between people from different households were allowed. Ms Duffield said they had been trying to “navigate a difficult personal situation as responsibly as possible”
- Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK’s chief scientific adviser, wrote in the Sunday Telegraph that evidence presented to ministers “will always be based on a careful analysis of the science available”
- A letter has been sent by 26 senior UK academics and health officials to Prime Minister Boris Johnson warning that public faith in the government has been “badly damaged” by Dominic Cummings’ trip to County Durham at the height of lockdown. By remaining in post as the PM’s chief aide, Mr Cummings has further dented the public’s faith in the government, the letter says
- The Mail on Sunday claims former teacher Robin Lees, who alerted police to Mr Cummings’ movements, allegedly broke lockdown rules himself. Mr Lees denies this, saying he complied with the relevant rules at the time, after he allegedly drove to pick up his student daughter from Berkshire.