Boris Johnson declares the U.K. “past the peak” of COVID-19 infections—but no plans to ease restrictions yet


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Boris Johnson said the U.K. was “past the peak” of COVID-19 infections Thursday, in his first daily press conference after recovering from the virus this month. 

But the British prime minister did not announce any immediate easing of social distancing measures. Instead, he said a comprehensive plan for how the restrictions will be eased—including ways people could safely return to work and schools might begin to reopen—would be unveiled sometime next week.

Johnson also referenced the “knotty” and “infuriating” issues of a lack of protective equipment and tests, particularly for front-line medical workers. “I am not going to minimize the serious logistical problems we have faced,” in getting PPE to healthcare workers, and testing, said Johnson. 

The lack of equipment had caused increasing frustration in recent weeks, drawing harsh criticism from within the NHS as the death toll of frontline workers continued to mount.

“We are throwing everything at it, heart and soul, night and day,” Johnson said.

This acknowledgement came on the day the government had set as a self-imposed deadline to ramp up testing to 100,000 tests per day. On April 2, health secretary Matt Hancock promised the government would meet its target of 100,000 tests per day by the end of the month, after facing criticism over a lack of tests even for front-line healthcare workers. It is unclear if the government missed that goal. Johnson said the U.K. tested 81,611 people on April 29. 

At the time, Hancock said the country would need to build a diagnostics industry “at scale” in order to ramp testing up ten-fold, and said that the slow pace of testing in the country compared to Germany was due to the U.K.’s smaller diagnostics industry.

Return to work 

It was only Johnson’s fourth day back at work. The British leader had been recovering out of sight from COVID-19, which had put him in the ICU for two nights earlier this month. It was an eventful week: On Wednesday, Johnson announced his fiancée, Carrie Symonds, had given birth to a healthy baby boy. 

On Thursday, Johnson said the current rates of infection and deaths showed that the nationwide lockdown, which is now in its sixth week, has been effective.

“Your efforts and your sacrifice is working, and has been proven to work,” he said.

The rate of transmission for the virus has dropped to an estimated range between 0.6 and 0.9, meaning that less than one new person is being infected from every current infection, according to Patrick Vallance, the U.K.’s chief medical officer.

While coronavirus deaths in the U.K. have been declining since early April, they remain relatively high. On Wednesday, another 674 people were reported to have died of the disease, though daily tally reports of deaths do not necessarily reflect a death on that day. However, the number of new cases has also been slow to come down: More than 6,000 new cases were reported yesterday.

Johnson also denied accusations that the U.K. had been harder hit by the virus compared to other countries as a result of the timing and approach to the nationwide lockdown—as Labour opposition leader Kier Starmer alleged earlier this week—and defended the government’s actions as “the right thing at the right time.”

“Let’s not charge into who’s won and who’s lost,” added chief medical officer Chris Whitty, who added that different methods for tracking and reporting COVID-19 deaths meant that comparing countries’ death rates in real time was a “fruitless exercise.” Whitty also cited an examination by David Spiegelhater in the Guardian on why national death rates are so difficult to compare.  

SAGE Controversy 

The prime minister did not address mounting questions about a lack of transparency on the membership and decision making process of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), the key group who Johnson has repeatedly said guides major policy decisions on the pandemic.

The members of that group have been officially kept secret, however media reports over the weekend and early this week reported that in addition to well-respected scientists, Dominic Cummings, a key political aid for Johnson, also attended the meetings and played an active role in their discussions. Ben Warner, a data scientist who works with Cummings at Downing Street, also attended the meetings.

In addition to Cummings and Warner, on Thursday, DeepMind, the London-based artificial intelligence company owned by Google-parent Alphabet, confirmed reports that its chief executive officer, Demis Hassabis, attended the key SAGE meeting on March 18 at which stricter lockdown measures were debated. The company said Hassabis attended “in his personal capacity” and at the invitation of Vallance. Hassabis is a well-respected expert on A.I., has a PhD. in cognitive neuroscience, and is a fellow of The Royal Society, Britain’s most prestigious scientific body. But he is not an epidemiologist, behavioral scientist, or economist, and it is unclear what input he provided.

On Wednesday, the Guardian reported that the government was looking to expand the membership of the advisory group, putting out a call to well-known research institutions for additional experts.

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