The coronavirus lockdown is to be extended on Thursday as Health Secretary Matt Hancock warned it will take time for life to return to normal.
But as ministers met to agree the details, one of the scientists advising them questioned whether the Government had done enough work on an exit strategy.
Professor Neil Ferguson from Imperial College London said: “I think there’s a lot of discussion. I would like to see action accelerated.
“We need to put in place an infrastructure, a command and control structure, a novel organisation for this.”
The Cabinet meeting to agree prolonging social distancing measures came amid signs the epidemic in the UK is beginning to peak.
But ministers were playing down expectations in the wake of those signs with health minister Nadine Dorries taking to Twitter to urge journalists to stop asking about an exit strategy.
She said: “There is only one way we can ‘exit’ full lockdown and that is when we have a vaccine. Until then, we need to find ways we can adapt society and strike a balance between the health of the nation and our economy.”
Mr Hancock said he agreed that things will not go back to how they were, at least in the short term.
He stressed the number of deaths is still “far too high” for any exit strategy to be set out.
Journalists should stop asking about an âexit strategy.â There is only one way we can âexitâ full lockdown and that is when we have a vaccine. Until then, we need to find ways we can adapt society and strike a balance between the health of the nation and our economy . #COVID19— Nadine Dorries 🇬🇧#StayAlert (@NadineDorries) April 15, 2020
A total of 13,729 patients have died in hospital after testing positive for coronavirus in the UK as of 5pm on Wednesday, up 861 on the figure the day before.
Mr Hancock told Sky News: “Well I think what Nadine was saying is the idea that we’ll immediately… we’ll just switch off all of the measures and return to some kind of… to things exactly as they were – that is not likely in the short-term.”
He said Ms Dorries’ use of the word “full” when referring to the lockdown was key, adding he thought the “point that Nadine was making is that we will not be returning to some… just straight back exactly how things were before. This will take time.”
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Prof Ferguson called for more co-ordination on an exit strategy, adding that “we have limited leeway to release current measures unless we have something new to put in their place”.
He said: “I’m reminded by the fact we had a Department for Brexit for Government – that was a major national emergency, as it were – and we’re faced with something which is, at the moment, even larger than Brexit and yet I don’t see quite the same evidence for that level of organisation.”
Prof Ferguson said that as restrictions are eased, more testing will be needed to isolate individual cases and trace their contacts to keep future outbreaks under control.
“If we relax measures too much then we’ll see a resurgence of transmission.
“What we really need is the ability to put something in their place. If we want to open schools, let people get back to work, then we need to keep transmission down in another manner.
“And I should say, it’s not going to be going back to normal. We will have to maintain some form of social distancing, a significant level of social distancing, probably indefinitely until we have a vaccine available.”
Interviewed after Prof Ferguson, the Health Secretary said: “The scientists can say what they like, the commentators can say what they like, the interviewers can say what they like. We will do what is best by dealing with this virus.”
He said how ministers communicate with the public has a “direct impact” on the number of cases and deaths, which are “still far too high”.
He said the message remains to stay at home and protect the NHS.
“The communications are part of the policy and that is why we will not be distracted into confusing that message,” he said.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has said his party will back an extension to the lockdown, but has called on ministers to set out an exit strategy explaining how restrictions will eventually be lifted.
The Cabinet meeting on Thursday comes after the number of people who have died in hospital after testing positive for Covid-19 reached almost 13,000, with growing concern over increasing deaths in care homes.
Downing Street also confirmed that a review will take place into why people from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds appear to be disproportionately affected by coronavirus.
The PM’s spokesman said the NHS and Public Health England would take the lead in reviewing the evidence.
Meanwhile, a leaked letter written on Saturday to a senior official at the Department of Health and Social Care by the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (Adass) says mixed messages from the Government have created “confusion and additional workload”.
The letter also raises fears about funding, testing, personal protective equipment (PPE) and the shielding scheme for vulnerable people.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab – standing in for Prime Minister Boris Johnson as he continues to recuperate from the disease – was chairing the Cabinet meeting where ministers will be briefed on the latest situation by the Government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance.
Mr Raab will then lead a meeting of the Cobra civil contingencies committee when it is expected the extension of the lockdown will be formally approved.
The leaders of the devolved administrations for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will take part by video link.
Elsewhere, captain Tom Moore, 99, who has walked 100 lengths of his garden to generate cash for the NHS has been praised as “an inspiration to us all” as his fundraising campaign passed the £12 million mark.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) also released data confirming the death rate for men with coronavirus in England and Wales is twice as high as that of women.
Covid-19 was the underlying cause in 3,372 deaths in March – the equivalent of 69 per 100,000 people.
It accounted for 7% of all deaths in England and Wales that month – 9% of all deaths for males and 6% for females.