The NHS will re-start some vital services, including cancer care, from Tuesday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock has said, as he admitted the Government has a “lot of work” to do to hit its 100,000 a day testing target.
Speaking at the daily Downing Street press briefing, Mr Hancock also announced a life assurance scheme to pay £60,000 to the families of those frontline NHS and social care workers who have died in the course of their duties.
It comes as England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty said the coronavirus epidemic in the UK still has a “very long way to run” and there was “no perfect solution” to easing the lockdown, adding there were “difficult choices” to be made.
Some 29,058 tests had been carried out in England, Scotland and Wales in the 24 hours up to 9am on Saturday, according to the latest figures, suggesting the Government is way off its 100,000 a day target set for this Thursday.
Mr Hancock said the Government was “broadly where we expected to be” in terms of testing capacity but admitted there was a lot of work to do to hit the 100,000 a day goal.
He added: “It is important to note that we have already gone past the number of tests, per day, for instance, that they carry out in South Korea.
“We are approaching the levels that Germany undertakes.”
Mr Hancock said the number of patients attending A&E had fallen to 221,000 in the last week from 477,000 in the same week last year, as he urged people in need to use the NHS.
“In some cases we know that the drop is due to people not coming forward and using the NHS for critical things that matter,” he said.
“Our message is that the NHS is open. Help us to help you.”
Some key NHS services which had been paused due to the coronavirus outbreak will be restored from Tuesday, with Mr Hancock saying 42% of oxygen supported beds set aside for cornavirus are currently empty.
“As the number of hospitalisations from coronavirus begins to fall, I can announce that, starting tomorrow, we will begin the restoration of other NHS services – starting with the most urgent, like cancer care and mental health support,” he said.
He said the “exact pace of the restoration” will be determined by hospitals based on how many Covid-19 patients they still have.
Mr Hancock also told the Downing Street briefing that 82 NHS workers and 16 social care staff had died so far as he announced the £60,000 payment for families.
“Of course, nothing replaces the loss of a loved one but we want to do everything we can to support families who are dealing with this grief,” he added.
The Government was also looking at other frontline professions who did not have access to a life assurance scheme, Mr Hancock said.
A total of 21,092 patients have died in hospital after testing positive for coronavirus in the UK as of 5pm on Sunday, Mr Hancock said, up by 360 from 20,732 the day before.
Meanwhile, more than 15,000 members of the public submitted questions to Monday’s press conference, with plans to answer one question a day from the public.
The first question, from a woman in Skipton, was: “I’m missing my grandchildren so much. Please can you let me know if, after the five criteria are met, is being able to hug our closest family one of the first steps out of lockdown?”
Suggesting some reunions may be possible at some point, Prof Whitty said it would depend on whether the woman has a “significant medical problem in a way that means she has to be shielding and she’s an older person”, adding that some grandparents are younger.
He added: “If she’s in a group that’s vulnerable, then the answer is it might well be prudent – and this will depend entirely on individual circumstances – for her not to get into a situation where she’s putting herself at risk.”
He said it was accepted that families wanted to get together but added: “It is important that people who are vulnerable continue to be protected even after whatever the next steps are.”
Earlier, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, on his first day back in Downing Street following his recovery from Covid-19, said the UK is at the point of “maximum risk” in its battle with the virus.
He said he acknowledged frustrations over the continuing lockdown but insisted he would not risk a second peak in the disease by relaxing restrictions too quickly.
Comparing the disease to a mugger, he added: “This is the moment when we have begun, together, to wrestle it to the floor.”
He said it is also the moment of maximum risk because of the danger that people would look at the “apparent success” and “go easy” on social distancing measures.
Speaking from a podium in Downing Street, Mr Johnson acknowledged the pressure to lift some of the draconian restrictions imposed on British people and businesses.
He said: “I want to get this economy moving as fast as I can” but “I refuse to throw away all the effort and the sacrifice of the British people and to risk a second major outbreak and huge loss of life”.
Meanwhile, small businesses will be able to secure a loan worth up to £50,000 with the Government guaranteeing 100% of the risk in the latest emergency scheme aimed at helping firms survive the coronavirus crisis.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak said the “bounce back loans” would have the interest paid by the Government for the first 12 months.