UK coronavirus: George Eustice urges furloughed workers to pick fruit; death toll rises by 545 – as it happened

Speaking at Downing Street’s daily press conference, the environment secretary, George 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.

Giving evidence to the Lords economic affairs committee earlier today, the chancellor said that by the end of the year he expected the percentage of the population in unemployment to be in double figures. It is not obvious that there will be an immediate bounce back, he added.

“We are likely to face a severe recession, the likes of which we haven’t seen, and of course that will have an impact on employment,” he said.

The UK claimant count jumped by 69% during the month, as 856,000 more people received universal credit and jobseeker’s allowance benefits in April. That lifted the claimant count to nearly 2.1 million people, from 1.24 million in March. In the south-west, the claimant count almost doubled during the month.

Meanwhile, more than 2m households have applied for universal credit, the UK’s main social security benefit, since the coronavirus lockdown started to hit the economy in mid-March, according to the latest figures from the Department for Work and Pensions.

Nick Stripe, the head of the health analysis and life events division at the ONS, told the BBC the total number of excess deaths in the UK – the number above what might be expected at this time of year, judged by a five-year average – was just under 55,000 by early May.

Scientists, and ministers, have repeatedly said that the excess death figures will ultimately prove the most reliable guide as to how badly the UK has been hit by coronavirus.

Half a dozen people from three Premier League football clubs have tested positive for Covid-19 in two days. With hopes of top-flight football resuming next month, the Premier League announced six players or staff returned positive results in its first two days of testing.

Facing an urgent question from the shadow minister for social care, Liz Kendall, Hancock defended the government’s approach, saying deaths in care homes were falling.

Kendall highlighted that more than 23,000 more people had died in care homes in the first four months of this year compared with last, accusing ministers of being “too slow” to tackle the impact of the virus in social care.

The group of MPs identified several lessons to learn from the UK’s handling of the outbreak, and criticised a lack of transparency over some crucial decision-making. They called on the government to “urgently” build up capacity for contact tracing, a key tactic in helping ease existing lockdown measures.

Here’s more on the news earlier that Labour’s annual party conference has been cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The conference, which would have been Sir Keir Starmer’s first as leader and was due to be attended by 13,000 people in Liverpool in September, will be replaced with online events.

“Our priority is the safety of members, staff and visitors to our events and the need to protect the public’s health,” a spokesman for the party said. “In light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, we have therefore decided to postpone this year’s annual and women’s conferences.”

Labour’s decision to cancel casts doubt on the conference season for the other main parties. A Liberal Democrat source told PA Media that a decision on the party’s own conference, due to be held in Brighton, would be made this evening and it was expected to also be moved online.

Here are the main points from the press conference.

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.

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.)

This is from LBC’s Ben Kentish.

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:

The Labour party has cancelled its conference this autumn, according to Sienna Rodgers from LabourList.

McLean says it is important to have a rapid and reliable testing system.

Q: Are you confident that we have got one?

It is getting better, says McLean.

And that’s it. The press conference is over.

Eustice says the government has provided extra funding for coronavirus. He says he accepts they will say they need more. But they have funds set aside, he says, referring to reserves. And he says he thinks the £3.2bn already allocated is the right decision.

Q: What will you prioritise in the Brexit talks? The City, which contributes greatly to the UK economy, or the fishing industry, which contributes much less?

Eustice says the government wants the UK to be an independent country. He says the EU expects the UK, uniquely, to give it unlimited access to its waters.

He says the government should not go into the negotiation planning to sacrifice one industry to help another.

Q: Are you considering easing the lockdown in island communities more quickly?

McLean says she cannot comment on policy, but she says whether to treat islands differently is an interesting issue.

Q: In February a WHO report said community tracing was the best way to combat coronavirus. So why was that not followed? And who takes ultimate responsibility – the politicians or the scientists?

McLean says the advice in March was based on the testing capacity available. It was not acceptable not to test people in hospital, she says.

Eustice says the government has been increasing capacity. And he says it was right to prioritise hospital testing.

Q: So are you saying that the advice given in March was the best advice possible in the context at the time.

McLean says that is what she is saying.

In his opening remarks Eustice urged people interested in fruit picking work to use a pickforbritain website.

As my colleague Fran Lawther points out, it does not seem to be working.

Q: Can you understand why teachers don’t trust the government on the safety of re-opening schools?

Eustice says he does not accept that the government has mishandled the crisis.

On schools, he says the government is working closely with unions and school leaders. He says countries like Denmark have shown it is possible to re-open schools.

Q: Track and trace won’t be in place by 1 June. Does that affect the decision?

McLean says there will be an update on Thursday as to what will be in place (in terms of track and trace) and when.

Q: Do you accept this is a political decision?

Eustice says the government is following the science.

But he says we will have to live alongside this virus for some time to come.

Q: You say you are inspired by contact tracing in South Korea. Do you regret the decision to abandon it in March?

Eustice says the government is ramping it up now. More than 20,000 people have been recruited to help, he says.

McLean says in March it was right to focus the testing capacity that was available on the people who really needed it in hospital.

Q: So you admit that capacity, not need, was the issue?

Eustice says they have been building capacity.

Another member of the public asks if the government will extend payment holidays on mortgages and loans for people who lose work.

Eustice says the government has offered unprecedented help. Those schemes will evolve, he says. The Treasury will be thinking about how the job retention scheme can evolve.

The first question comes from a member of the public who wants to know what the government is doing to learn lessons from other countries about how to ease the lockdown.

Eustice says the government is looking at the experience in other countries.

McLean says two countries stand out. South Korea has used contact tracing particularly well to drive numbers down. They now just have a handful. The UK would like to emulate that, she says. And she says she would like to learn from Germany’s record on testing.

McLean is now introducing the daily slides.

She starts with one about transport use.

Here are the hospital figures. She says the hospital admissions figures are falling, but not as quickly as people might have expected.

And here are the regional hospital figures.

Here are the death figures.

Eustice is now talking about the availability of foreign labour for the harvest.

Normally workers from countries like Romania and Bulgaria come.

But only around a third of them are here, he says.

He says the government is encouraging Britons to take these jobs.

He says staff who are furloughed may want to supplement their income with a second job.

Eustice starts by reading out the latest figures.

He says there have been a further 545 UK deaths, taking the total to 35,341