The United Kingdom's novel coronavirus outbreak is starting to peak but it is too early to lift the lockdown because the virus would "run rampant" if the government eased social distancing measures, Health Minister Matt Hancock said on Thursday.
The United Kingdom has the fifth highest official death toll from COVID-19 in the world, after the United States, Italy, Spain and France, though the figure only covers hospital fatalities and the real number is probably much higher.
"We think it is too early to make a change," Hancock said. "While we've seen a flattening of the number of cases, and thankfully a flattening of the number of deaths, that hasn't started to come down yet."
"If we just released all the measures now, then this virus would run rampant once again and we can't let that happen."
While Prime Minister Boris Johnson recuperates at a country residence from COVID-19 complications that nearly cost him his life, the British government is due to discuss a review of the lockdown later on Thursday.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, who is deputising for Johnson, has already made clear there will be no immediate lifting of the social distancing measures announced on March 23.
Raab will chair a cabinet meeting at 1000 GMT at which the government's chief scientist will update ministers. Later in the afternoon Raab will chair an emergency response meeting to discuss the lockdown.
The United Kingdom's hospital death toll from COVID-19 rose by 761 to 12,868 as of 1600 on April 14, the health ministry said. Broader statistics that include deaths in care homes and in the community suggest the total toll is much larger.
The most stringent restrictions in British peacetime history have effectively closed down much of the world economy, and the United Kingdom is heading towards its deepest depression in three centuries.
As leaders around the world begin to contemplate ways to exit the shutdown, epidemiologists have cautioned that a second wave of the outbreak could endanger the weak and elderly.
Neil Ferguson, a professor of mathematical biology at Imperial College London who advises the government, said Britain would probably have to maintain some level of social distancing until a vaccine for the novel coronavirus is available.
"It is not going to be going back to normal," Ferguson told BBC radio. "We will have to maintain some level of social distancing, a significant level of social distancing, probably indefinitely until we have a vaccine available."
"If we relax measures too much then we will see a resurgence in transmission," he said. "If we want to reopen schools, let people get back to work then we need to keep the transmission down in another manner."
GlaxoSmithKline Chief Executive Officer Emma Walmsley said on Wednesday that a vaccine was unlikely to be ready before the second half of 2021.