This week health secretary Matt Hancock confirmed the coronavirus outbreak has passed its peak, sparking speculation about an exit strategy from the UK lockdown.
However, officials have poured cold water on the idea that Britain could return to normal soon.
Last week the government said the UK coronavirus lockdown would continue for at least another three weeks. But when — and how — will this state of quarantine end?
The five tests
Ministers have outlined five key tests that must be met before restrictions can be lifted:
- Making sure the NHS can cope
- A ‘sustained and consistent’ fall in the daily death rate
- A decline in the infection rate
- Ensuring supplies of personal protection equipment (PPE) and tests can meet demand
- No risk of a second peak in the virus
So far, the NHS appears to have coped well with the crisis. Cancellations of routine appointment and procedures — as well as the new Nightingale field hospitals — have freed up thousands of beds.
The daily coronavirus death rate is also beginning to fall.
Testing is now available to essential workers, but the government is still less than a quarter of a way to its target of 100,000 tests per day by the end of April.
Moreover, eliminating the risk of a second peak — one of the key factors for lifting restrictions — will prove difficult.
Chief medical officer Chris Whitty has warned the only way to ensure a return to normal would be the widespread availability of a vaccine or drug.
The chances of having one of these in the next calendar year are “incredibly small”, Whitty said.
He warned social distancing would have to be in place for at least the rest of 2020.
Phased approach to end UK coronavirus lockdown
While the UK government is yet to confirm an exit strategy, it seems likely that any lifting of coronavirus lockdown measures will happen gradually.
According to reports, ministers are drawing up a three-stage approach to easing restrictions between May and July.
Under these plans, some shops and businesses could be allowed to reopen in early to mid-May. Restrictions on people leaving their homes would be gradually relaxed.
Pubs and restaurants could then be reopened later in the summer. And so-called shielding arrangements to protect elderly and vulnerable people could be kept in place for the longer term.
But any decision on when and how to lift the UK coronavirus lockdown will depend on whether the virus transmission rate — known as the R number — has reduced to a manageable level.
Ministers have also said an easing of the UK coronavirus lockdown would depend on the launch and widespread uptake of an NHS contact tracing app. This would notify people if they have come close to someone who has tested positive for Covid-19.
First minister Nicola Sturgeon has warned the lifting of restrictions in Scotland would be “incremental” rather than a “flick-of-the-switch moment”.
Wales has outlined a “traffic light” system to gradually ease lockdown, beginning at the end of the current three-week period.
The economic impact of quarantine
While health concerns are central to the UK’s approach, authorities must also take into account the economic impact of the pandemic.
Striking this balance has proved controversial, and Boris Johnson’s Cabinet is understood to be divided over the subject.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak, Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove and trade secretary Liz Truss have all expressed concern about the impact of an extended lockdown on the economy.
Backbench Tory MPs have also weighed in on the debate, warning that thousands of businesses were on the verge of collapse.
Others, including Hancock, want to wait until the R number is close to zero before easing restrictions, arguing that a second wave of infections would be more damaging.
Who makes the final decision?
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been out of action as he recovers from coronavirus at Chequers, but now plans on returning to work as soon as Monday.
Michael Gove has said he welcomed a “public debate” on the sensitive issue of when and how to lift the lockdown.
Ultimately, though, the government will need to overcome divisions in the Cabinet and come to a collective decision.