Boris Johnson is facing a split at the top of his cabinet over the speed with which Britain exits its coronavirus lockdown, while also confronting claims he was “missing in action” when the crisis first hit.
The prime minister, recovering from Covid-19 at Chequers, faces a big test when he returns to work in deciding whether the economy can start to reopen before the virus has been completely suppressed.
Michael Gove, cabinet office minister, and Rishi Sunak, chancellor, are among those arguing for a swifter reopening, while Matt Hancock, health secretary, wants to crush the virus before the lockdown is eased.
In a further sign of the tensions, senior government officials say that Dominic Cummings, Mr Johnson’s chief adviser, is backing Mr Hancock, while cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill is taking a more “hawkish” line.
Mr Sunak has ordered the Treasury to model for a possible “U-shaped” economic recovery from the virus, reflecting fears that there will not be a swift rebound.
The chancellor is concerned that unemployed workers will not quickly find new jobs, while his allies are also worried that some people will not immediately return to work, even if restrictions are lifted.
Cabinet strains on the exit strategy from the lockdown surfaced at the end of last week, when Mr Gove joined Mr Sunak in arguing that the economy should start to reopen even while the virus was present in society.
The split centres on how low the reproduction rate of the virus — known as its R number — should be before the lockdown starts to be unwound.
Government officials confirm that Mr Gove and Mr Sunak believe that if the R number is sustainably below 1 — where the number of new infections is no longer rising — then restrictions can begin to be lifted.
The Sunday Times, which first reported the tensions, quoted Mr Gove as telling colleagues that “we need to run this hot”, so that new virus cases — and deaths — would continue but within the capacity of the NHS to cope.
But Mr Hancock wants the R number close to zero before beginning to reopen the economy, arguing that Britain cannot afford another damaging peak. The government’s current lack of testing capacity is a key issue.
Although Mr Gove said on Sunday that the government was “on course to be able to test 100,000 a day by the end of the month” it currently has capacity for only 38,000. Testing and tracing of contacts are a key part of any exit strategy.
One government adviser said Mr Johnson had a huge decision to make. “Do you take it to zero or do you start to end the lockdown? It’s the biggest policy issue facing the country.”
Those who support a longer lockdown, a policy broadly supported by the public according to opinion polls, say that Mr Gove and Mr Sunak’s approach is too risky.
“The idea you can control the rate of transmission just below R=1 is premised on the idea that you can control the spread of the virus, turning taps on or off,” said one senior Tory.
Downing Street expects the timetable for any lifting of the lockdown to be guided by advice from the government’s Sage expert committee, which is due to report on the impact of different exit strategies next week.
Gavin Williamson, education secretary, denied a report that there were plans to reopen schools as early as May 11, but ministers are studying a variety of scenarios for a staged lifting of the restrictions.
One University College London paper, co-authored by economists Paul Ormerod and Gerard Lyons, a former adviser to Boris Johnson, has been read with interest by ministers and suggested a “traffic light” exit.
It proposed a red phase, during which some shops could open with social distancing, could start in early May, followed by an amber phase in late May during which people could use public transport while wearing masks and restaurants could reopen with social distancing.
In a green phase starting in mid-June the public could be fully released from lockdown if health experts allowed it and sporting events and other mass gatherings could resume, along with international travel.
Meanwhile ministers have rallied to the defence of Mr Johnson after the Sunday Times Insight team revealed that the prime minister failed to attend five successive Cobra emergency meetings on the virus in January and February.
Jonathan Ashworth, shadow health secretary, said Mr Johnson appeared to have been “missing in action”, including 12 days spent out of sight at his Chevening grace and favour home in late February as the virus spread.
But Mr Williamson insisted that from the moment the threat of coronavirus became clear the prime minister had been “absolutely leading our fight against the virus”.
Mr Gove told the BBC’s Andrew Marr programme that prime ministers did not always attend Cobra meetings and that Mr Johnson had been kept fully briefed by Mr Hancock.
“It’s grotesque the idea our prime minister should be portrayed as not caring about this,” Mr Gove said. Mr Johnson chaired his first Cobra meeting on March 2.
Mr Gove confirmed that Britain had sent personal protective equipment to China before the virus hit the UK, but that more PPE had been sent in the other direction.
“All governments make mistakes, including our own,” he said, adding that the country would learn “profound lessons” at “some point in the future” when a review was undertaken of its response.