UK coronavirus live: George Eustice urges furloughed workers to pick fruit; death toll rises by 545

By Andrew Sparrow and Simon Murphy (now); Frances Perraudin (earlier)

13:25

Lockdown should not be eased until 'track and trace' system in place, says deputy chief science adviser

Here are the main points from the press conference.

  • Prof Dame Angela McLean, the government’s deputy chief scientific adviser, said that scientists have told ministers that they should only relax the lockdown when a proper contact tracing system is in place. She said:

Scientists have been very clear in our advice that changes to lockdown, as we modelled them, need a highly effective track, trace and isolate system to be in place. And we’re also very clear that any change to the social distancing measures should be based upon observed levels of incidents in places where those are going to be changed, not on a fixed date.

Downing Street has implied that the lockdown could be relaxed further without a contact tracing system being rolled out across England. A contact tracing app is being trialled on the Isle of Wight, and the government has hired 21,000 people to do contact tracing. But the government has not been able to commit to having a countrywide contact tracing system up and running by 1 June, which is when it wants to move to the next stage of easing the lockdown, including with some primary school pupils returning to school in England. McLean’s comment is unlikely to be welcomed by No 10. These are from my colleague Peter Walker.

Peter Walker (@peterwalker99)

I don't think Angela McLean is capable of not giving a straight answer. You'd have thought someone at No 10 would have spotted that before she appeared at the press conference.

May 19, 2020
Peter Walker (@peterwalker99)

Now, every time George Eustice says, "Angela, would you like to add anything?" he sounds a bit nervous.

May 19, 2020
  • McLean said scientific advisers were due to be told this Thursday when the government would be able to roll out the “track and trace” contact tracking system. (See 5.29pm.)
  • She said that the government had to limit the extent of testing in March because it did not have the capacity to test everyone with suspected coronavirus. She said:

The advice that we gave certainly took account of what testing was available.

It was the best thing to do with the tests that we had. We could not have people in hospital with Covid symptoms not knowing whether or not they had Covid.

It is only recently that officials have said explicitly that capacity was the problem; previously it was claimed that there were policy reasons for the decision to abandon widespread testing. But even at this press conference George Eustice, the environment secretary, was not quite as open about capacity being the problem as McLean. (See 5.23pm.)

  • Eustice dismissed as a “caricature” claims that the government did not protect people in care homes from coronavirus. But he accepted that some patients with coronavirus were discharged into care homes. He said:

We don’t accept the caricature that we took an approach that was wrong.

Very early on in this epidemic we had protocols in place for care homes, there was guidance as to how they should approach things.

As the situation developed then more stringent policies were introduced by way of policy around discharge and we got to the point where everybody was tested before discharge.

But in those early weeks there will have been some instances where people may have been discharged who were asymptomatic, there may have been some – a small number of instances – where they may have been showing symptoms but would have been isolating.

That was the guidance at the time that was in place but we have strengthened that very much ever since then, we now have testing and a rigorous discharge policy that’s in place and that is getting stronger all the time.

  • Eustice urged Britons to apply for jobs as fruit pickers to compensate for the fact that only a third of the eastern Europeans who normally come to the UK to do this work are expected to arrive. But he advised people interested to try a new Pick for Britain website that has not been working this afternoon. He said:

Every year large numbers of people come from countries such as Romania or Bulgaria to take part in the harvest, harvesting crops such as strawberries and salads and vegetables.

We estimate that probably only about a third of the people that would normally come are already here, and small numbers may continue to travel.

But one thing is clear and that is that this year we will need to rely on British workers to lend a hand to help bring that harvest home.

This is from LBC’s Ben Kentish.

Ben Kentish LBC (@BenKentish)

Interesting timing - 24 hours after the govt reintroduced legislation to end low-skilled migration, George Eustice says the UK is suffering from a lack low-skilled migrants to pick fruit.

May 19, 2020
  • McLean said government advisers were looking in detail at whether lockdown measures should be eased at different times in different places. Asked if there was a case for treating remote island communities differently, she replied:

I can tell you for sure location is a huge focus of ours at the moment.

Islands are a very special case which is, of course, particularly interesting but there are also other parts of the country that have ... the spread of the infection across the country is really quite diverse, quite heterogeneous and that does, of course, raise interesting questions, particularly as we get incidents right, right down about what should we do about that.

Prof Dame Angela McLean (left) and George Eustice at the press conference.

Prof Dame Angela McLean (left) and George Eustice at the press conference. Photograph: PA Video/PA

Updated

12:55

MSPs have voted to repeal controversial measures which gave the Scottish government and public bodies the right to take up to three months to answer freedom of information requests.

To the dismay of civil rights groups and opposition MSPs, the Scottish government pushed through emergency legislation in April which gave public bodies up to 60 working days to answer requests.

Ministers claimed the coronavirus pandemic was an exceptional case which put the public sector under too great a strain to respond to requests within 20 days, even though no other government in the UK or Europe followed suit.

MSPs on the Scottish parliament’s Covid-19 committee backed amendments to a further emergency bill, Coronavirus (Scotland) (No 2), from the Scottish Greens on Tuesday to return to the original rules under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002.

The Greens’ measures were supported by Scottish National party MSPs on the committee, after SNP amendments were voted down, implying that the SNP minority government will back the amendments when the bill is finally voted on on Thursday. Ross Greer, a Scottish Green MSP, said:

Confidence in government is critical right now but it depends on transparency. Restricting freedom of information was wrong and unnecessary, reflected by the fact that no other country in Europe has taken this step. The Greens are glad to have brought Scotland back in line with common standards of openness and transparency.

Updated

12:48

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12:38

Updated

12:05

Eustice says there have been 545 more UK coronavirus deaths, taking total to 35,341