Britain set to announce month-long extension of Covid-19 lockdown

British Health Secretary Matt Hancock

Britain is expected to announce a three-week extension of its near-lockdown to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus late on Thursday, after Health Secretary Matt Hancock said it was too early to lift restrictions.

"I think everybody can see that we've been clear that we think that it is too early to make a change," Hancock told the BBC.

"And whilst we have seen a flattening of the number of cases - and thankfully a flattening of the number of deaths - that hasn't started to come down yet, and as far as I'm concerned is still far too high," he said.

"I understand those who are calling for an end to the lockdown or some kind of exit strategy to start now, but I think it's just too early for that," Hancock added.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab is expected to confirm the extension at Downing Street after chairing a meeting of senior ministers to discuss the government's response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Raab is deputising for Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is recovering after hospital treatment following his infection with the virus.

Epidemiologist Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London, however, told the broadcaster he thought Britain's daily number of infections had "peaked two weeks ago." But Ferguson, a regular adviser to the government on the pandemic, said a lack of testing was limiting Britain's ability to understand the trajectory of infections.

Meanwhile, the health ministry reported another 861 deaths linked to Covid-19 infections on Thursday, taking Britain's total to nearly 14,000. The ministry said it had confirmed 103,000 infections from 328,000 tests, including 19,000 tests in the past 24 hours - far short of its target of 100,000 tests daily by the end of this month.

Government experts estimate that hundreds of thousands of people are infected.

Ferguson admitted that the death toll was "larger than the numbers just reported by the [National Health Service]," after reports that hundreds, possibly thousands, of people have died in care homes for the elderly or in their own homes.

He told the broadcaster that any change in lockdown conditions "will very much depend on quite how quickly case numbers go down, and that does require us to get on top of things like transmission rates in hospitals and care homes."

"I think the other thing I would say is that it really requires a single-minded emphasis in government and the health system on scaling up testing and putting in place the ability to track down cases in the community and contact-trace," he said.

"If we relax measures too much then we'll see a resurgence of transmission," Ferguson added, warning that life would not be "going back to normal" even if the lockdown is eased.

"We will have to maintain ... a significant level of social distancing, probably indefinitely until we have a vaccine available," he said.

Health experts have criticized the government's slow response to the crisis, the low level of testing and the poor provision of intensive care beds, ventilators and protective equipment.

More on this subject: Coronavirus

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