Social distancing measures may have to stay in place “indefinitely,” government experts said in plans being drawn up in Whitehall that could see Britain begin to emerge from isolation next month.
Authorities are considering a plan to lift the lockdown “upside down” with the first schools likely to open from early June, followed by all stores, but larger social gatherings delayed until the end. Elderly and vulnerable people should stay at home longer.
However, it is understood that the British will be asked to consider whether social interactions – such as going to an office or visiting relatives – are necessary as part of a plan to live with the virus for many months or even years. It is hoped that a plan to encourage social distancing to become voluntary will contribute to the emergence of a second wave.
The public has already restricted travel and interaction more than expected, with fewer people going out to work than experts expected.
The new exit strategy comes amid growing concerns within Whitehall about the devastating economic effects of the foreclosure. The Treasury is believed to believe that GDP will fall by more than 14% in the next three months – which would lead to an extreme development of poverty which could ultimately lead to the premature death of more people than the virus.
The Telegraph understands that government science advisers will meet officially on Thursday, after which ministers are expected to start “getting things done” on how an exit strategy might work.
Britain recorded its worst day of death on Friday, with 980 dead, with the world’s death toll over 100,000. Ministers urge people to stay home this weekend, concerned that the weather will affect them. encourages people to leave and undermines efforts to stop the spread of the virus.
However, official figures suggest that hospital admissions may peak – and have even started to drop in London. Senior ministers now believe the peak is very close and could happen this weekend, although scientific advisers are more cautious.
Senior Conservative MPs have warned of the “bigger human consequences” of an economic downturn that could lead to “high death toll” in the long term. Sir Iain Duncan Smith, former leader of the Conservative party, said that “it would not be possible for us to be locked up until May”.
A government source said, “We fully understand that – if there is a significant drop in people’s incomes – this may have an impact on their health. “
Government plans suggest that an effective foreclosure would last 13 weeks, which would mean that the restrictions would remain in place until at least the end of May.
Officials believe that certain measures – such as encouraging the systematic use of remote work – may need to remain in place indefinitely in order to fight future epidemics.
Health officials are also evaluating the effectiveness of various measures, with school closings expected to have less impact on transmission rates than other interventions.
Students could return to school after the summer semester, ministers hope, Whitehall officials now considering a “staggered” return to class as part of the UK’s exit strategy against coronaviruses.
Department of Education (DfE) officials are expected to consider proposals that would bring different age groups back over a period of weeks.
Provided that the peak of the coronavirus arrives before May, Whitehall sources said the ministers hope that students could start returning to schools between June and July after the midterm break.
The Telegraph understands that a plan under discussion would begin with Grade 10 and Grade 12 “key groups of the year”, since students in these groups will be taking GCSEs and A-Levels in 12 months .
The teacher unions involved in discussions with the DfE have also proposed a “phased approach” and hope that it will be possible for schools to reopen for several weeks before the summer vacation.
A senior government source told the Telegraph on Friday, “It would be better if they could come back after the mid-summer break, but that must of course be led by science.
“Even if they come back, you will have to have a social distance, and it’s hard to do in a class of 30. It would mean that you couldn’t have everyone at the same time. “You have to focus on the key groups of the year, such as year 10 and year 12.”
Deputy medical director Jonathan Van-Tam said the UK was still in a “dangerous phase”.
Health Secretary Matthew Hancock said, “This Easter will be another test of the nation’s determination. It’s a time of year when people get together normally.
“But whatever the weather, whatever the temptation of your beach or your park, we need everyone to stay at home.
“Because in hospitals across the country, NHS staff are fighting day and night to keep desperately sick people breathing, and they need you to stay home. “
Warnings that a sunny weekend could see the public flouting the lockout restrictions on their way to the countryside and second homes saw nine rural police forces effectively close the borders of their counties to visitors by intensifying patrols and roadside checks.
However, the forces also came under fire for heavy tactics, including to verify that buyers were not buying “nonessential” items – although they were warned not to do so by the Minister of the Interior .