Boris Johnson has said he will act with “maximum caution” in easing the coronavirus lockdown amid signs of tensions with the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales.
Downing Street insisted the Prime Minister would be announcing only a “very limited” easing of the social distancing rules when he sets out his “road map” for the way forward in an address to the nation on Sunday.
However, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon issued a warning that she would not be “pressured” by the Government at Westminster into easing restrictions “prematurely” in Scotland.
The Welsh Government warned there was a danger of sending out “mixed messages” amid newspaper reports that pub and cafe gardens could be allowed to reopen and restrictions on sunbathing and playing outdoor sports relaxed.
Mr Johnson – who will set out the next steps in the Government’s response to the coronavirus in a broadcast to the nation at 7pm on Sunday – briefed the Cabinet on how he intended to proceed on Thursday.
Ministers are expected to convene again over the weekend before the details are finalised after officials have had a chance to scrutinise the latest data on the spread of the disease.
“The Prime Minister said that in considering whether there could be any easement in the existing guidelines that we are not going to do anything that risks a second peak,” a spokesman said.
“We will advance with maximum caution in order to protect the NHS and save lives.
“We will be guided at every step by the science and the data and we will closely track the impact of any easing of the social distancing measures and will not hesitate to tighten the rules if required.”
The Prime Minister was due to brief the leaders of the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern on his proposals in a conference call on Thursday.
However, Ms Sturgeon told a news conference at the Scottish Government headquarters in Edinburgh that any weakening of the strong “stay home” message to the public would be a “potentially catastrophic mistake”.
“If the Prime Minister decides that he wants to move at a faster pace for England than I consider is right for Scotland, that is his right, I will respect that and I will not criticise him for doing that,” she said.
“I will not be pressured into lifting restrictions prematurely before I am as certain as I can be that we will not be risking a resurgence of infection rates.”
The Welsh Government also issued a statement emphasising the importance that people were informed “clearly and accurately” about any changes to the current stay-at-home restrictions.
“Some of the reporting in today’s newspapers is confusing and risks sending mixed messages to people across the UK,” it said.
Downing Street said the Prime Minister wanted to maintain the “four-nation approach” to the lockdown and believed they should only diverge “when there is evidence that supports it”.
Mr Johnson also briefed the leaders of the opposition parties at Westminster in a call described by Labour as “constructive”.
Meanwhile, the continuing economic damage being wrought by the pandemic was underlined as the Bank of England warned of a 14% drop in GDP this year in the biggest fall on record.
Bank governor Andrew Bailey said that while the economy was expected to recover more quickly than it did after the 2008 financial crash, the effects would still be felt for “around a year” after the lockdown finally lifted.
Downing Street has acknowledged the restrictions were having a “huge impact” but warned the effect on the economy would been even more severe if there was a second spike in the disease.
“That is not only the view of the Government but also the view of the Governor of the Bank of England,” the Prime Minister’s spokesman said.
Earlier, there was embarrassment for ministers after it emerged a consignment of 400,000 gowns for medical staff from Turkey had been impounded because they did not meet UK standards.
Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick had hailed the promised arrival of the kit at a No 10 news conference last month at a time ministers were under intense pressure over shortages of personal protective equipment.
Following a series of delays, an RAF transport aircraft was dispatched to Turkey to collect it but the Government has confirmed that it remains at warehouse at Heathrow.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said that if the supplier could not provide gowns to the standard required, a refund would be sought.
“An initial deposit was paid and the NHS is in discussions with the supplier over whether replacement gowns can be manufactured to meet our standards,” the spokesman said .
“If this is not possible, a refund will be sought.”