Downing Street on Thursday insisted any easing of social distancing measures next week will be “very limited” as the government formally extended the coronavirus lockdown.
Boris Johnson told a virtual meeting of his cabinet that the government would “advance with maximum caution” on lockdown easing to avoid “a second peak” of Covid-19 infections.
It came as the government failed to meet its target of carrying out 100,000 daily virus tests for the fifth day in a row. A total of 86,583 tests were carried out in the latest 24-hour period.
The Department of Health said the daily UK death toll from the virus had risen by 539, taking the total to 30,615. Official figures suggest that the number of deaths is significantly higher.
The prime minister will map out the UK’s gradual exit from the lockdown in a televised address on Sunday, and is expected to announce some limited easing of restrictions that could take effect next week.
These could include allowing unlimited exercise outside people’s homes, and enabling some businesses to ramp up operations where social distancing can be observed.
Government officials said Mr Johnson could also announce that English schools will be given three weeks to prepare for a possible “phased return” of pupils from June 1.
The prime minister told his cabinet: “We are not going to do anything that risks a second peak. We will advance with maximum caution in order to protect the NHS and to save lives.”
A Downing Street spokesman said any lockdown easing next week would be “very limited” and cautioned against any relaxing of the rules over the bank holiday weekend.
Foreign secretary Dominic Raab confirmed the lockdown had been extended, reflecting how the government was required by law to review the restrictions on Thursday.
He said that any lockdown easing would be carried out in a “sure-footed and sustainable” way, with ministers reserving the right to reintroduce restrictions.
“Any changes [to the lockdown] in the short term will be modest, small, incremental and very carefully monitored,” added Mr Raab.
Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon signalled deep frustration with the UK government’s messaging on the lockdown, saying she wanted a return to “proper, grown-up” discussion between London and the devolved administrations.
She added UK lockdown easing that involved encouraging people back to work would not be appropriate for Scotland.
“I particularly strongly believe that for us to drop the clear, well understood, ‘stay at home’ message right now could be a potentially catastrophic mistake,” she said.
Ms Sturgeon has repeatedly said she would prefer to end the lockdown on a UK-wide basis, but stressed that this would require moving at the pace of the nation at greatest risk of renewed spread of the virus.
A Welsh government spokesman said it was “crucially important” the public were “informed clearly and accurately” about any changes to the lockdown.
Downing Street said Mr Johnson had told the devolved administrations in a call on Thursday that there would be a UK-wide response to coronavirus, “even if different parts of the UK begin to move at slightly different speeds”.
A spokesman added: “Those decisions will be made based on the science for each nation.”
Further UK government announcements on lockdown easing could take place later this month when ministers are expected to assess the impact of the initial changes on the reproduction rate of the virus.
Another requisite for broader relaxation of the lockdown is the need for a robust regime for testing of people suspected of having Covid-19, and tracing of those who have come into contact with them.
Government officials said the first non-essential shops to reopen will be those where social distancing is easiest to observe, and will include those supporting manufacturing.
“Car showrooms are a good example,” said one official. “Carmakers are desperate to reopen the showrooms so they can start selling vehicles again. You’d expect car showrooms to be among the first places to reopen.”