Coronavirus: when will UK lockdown end?
FT Whitehall correspondent Sebastian Payne says there are tensions between chancellor Rishi Sunak and health secretary Matt Hancock but it is Prime Minister Boris Johnson who has to make the big decisions, once he recovers from the virus
Produced by Petros Gioumpasis
You can enable subtitles (captions) in the video player
How long is this lockdown going to last? The country still seems to be abiding by the stringent social distancing rules the prime minister set out two and a half weeks ago. But there are increasing tensions and questions at the top of government about how and when the lockdown should come to a close.
As you can see, Westminster is all but deserted. All but non-essential ministers are working from home and MPs are in their constituencies. But one person who certainly is here and has been here throughout the crisis is the Chancellor Rishi Sunak. He only entered the Treasury less than six weeks ago, yet he's had to deal with the economic impact of the UK's lockdown.
He unveiled three huge packages to try and keep the economy going throughout this crisis. The first was to help businesses with a huge series of government-backed loans. The second was to help employees, where the government offered to pay up to 80 per cent of their wages, up to £2,500 a month, for the foreseeable future. And the third package was for the self-employed, offering similar terms, but only for those earning up to £50,000 a month.
What we have done will, I believe, stand as one of the most significant economic interventions at any point in the history of the British state and by any government anywhere in the world.
All this is costing the Treasury a lot of money. As a right-wing Conservative, implementing these huge, state-backed measures was a wrench for Mr Sunak, but he had no other option. Otherwise, you would have seen mass unemployment and huge economic woes across the country. But the Treasury is very keen to try and bring these measures to a close as soon as it possibly can.
According to the FT's estimates, the three packages are going to add about £60bn to the UK's public finances and could widen the deficit by up to £200bn by the end of the year. Mr Sunak has been the voice arguing most clearly for an exit strategy for the lockdown to know when the Treasury can begin to wind down these measures. But this will be politically very difficult for the chancellor, because every measure he takes will be fraught with grave political risk.
But on the other side of this argument is Matt Hancock, the health secretary. He's been at the frontline of the UK's fight against coronavirus since January.
The more people follow the rules, then the faster we will all be through it.
He's been responsible for hospitals, nurses, doctors, and most troublingly for this government, equipment. The UK has struggled to provide enough PPE equipment for those on the front line. It had a shortage of ventilators, and of course, testing has been a big problem, as the country has consistently fallen behind America, Germany, and other countries in making sure it can test frontline NHS staff and patients who are suspected of having coronavirus.
It's Mr Hancock's job to make sure the health service can survive the coronavirus crisis, but he has been concerned that a rapid rise in cases could overwhelm the health service and put patients and doctors in very difficult situations. He's therefore been arguing that the lockdown may need to go on longer and those social distancing measures may need to stay in place to avoid that critical second curve, which has bitten other countries, and could, in itself, overwhelm the health crisis.
So in these cabinet meetings you've seen these two sides going head to head. Now, Mr Sunak and Mr Hancock argue there haven't been any arguments, just both sides trying to speak up for the needs of their department. But when you look at the very different aims of both departments you can see why there has been a big split and why there are some very difficult decisions ahead for Downing Street.
But the person who's going to make the key decision on lockdown is going to be Boris Johnson himself. Mr Johnson was admitted to hospital on the weekend to undergo further tests as he is suffering from coronavirus himself. In his absence, the de facto deputy prime minister is Dominic Raab. He's the man who will be making the decisions in the prime minister's absence.
Some people are going to start wondering, is it time to ease up on the rules? So I have to say, thank you for your sacrifice, but also, we're not done yet. We must keep going.
But the decision on when and how to end lockdown and the social distancing measures can only really be made by one person. It will be one of the momentous decisions taken by this government. It can't be Mr Hancock, or Mr Sunak, or Mr Raab. Really, Mr Johnson is the prime minister and he will have to make the call on when it's the crucial moment to start putting Britain back to normal again.