Britain has been living under lockdown for 17 long days and discussion is now turning to how we get out.

Our death rate seems set to peak imminently.

At the weekend, Government advisor, epidemiologist Professor Neil Ferguson, of Imperial College London, suggested it could be within the next seven to 10 days.

Understandably, the questions about what happens when that dreaded curve flattens, are building.

Boris Johnson initially said lockdown would be reviewed after the Easter weekend, but foreign secretary Dominic Raab has insisted it is too early to discuss an “exit strategy”, and health secretary Matt Hancock has agreed.

The lockdown has been in place since March 23

And England’s Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty has stressed it is not yet possible to “call the point” at which we start to relax lockdown.

A Senior Whitehall source said: “If you talk to the Treasury, they’ll tell you we can do this for another month, two months tops, before we start doing damage to the economy that we won’t be able to undo.

“But Health and Downing Street are holding firm – this will last as long as it needs to last until we think we can keep the deaths as low as possible.”

The lockdown is expected to last until June
Brits have been told they can only leave their homes for essential travel and exercise

But our appetite for greater freedoms is being whetted by the tempting noises being made by our European neighbours.

Austria looks set to become the first EU country to publicly announce plans to lift some restrictions from April 14, with a second phase from May 1. In Denmark, there are plans to start reopening nurseries and primary schools from April 15.

Spain has suggested some economic restrictions could be lifted after Easter.

France has hinted at the possibility of easing lockdown in phases, region by region, “subject to a new testing policy – depending, possibly, on age and other factors”.

Empty roads are now a common sight

And Italy, scene of such horrifying scenes, has suggested a “phase 2” would have testing at its heart.

Further afield, China, too, has highlighted testing and contact tracing – tracking all those with symptoms and anyone they have been in contact with.

Strategies here vary widely. One is a phased relaxation and civil servants have been asked to draw up options for this kind of segmented release.

More than 13,000 lives have been lost to coronavirus in Spain
Italy has been one of the worst hit countries of the pandemic

This could pivot on a region-by-region approach or the gradual expansion of workers regarded as key, or the slow reopening of certain businesses.

Prof Andrew Oswald, of the University of Warwick, believes age would be the safest and most effective indicator to use. His suggestion is to initially “release” only 20 to 30 year olds from lockdown, as they are the “safest among us”.

This would mean 4.3 million people – only those who don’t live in the parental home and wouldn’t pose a risk to older people. They are also the group hardest hit by a loss of livelihood.

He explained: “It’s quite a simple idea, but it might make a good first stage in an exit strategy... We could restart a fifth or a sixth of the economy in this way.”

Police can fine people for sunbathing
Police can fine people for sunbathing
Police officers talk to people on a near-deserted beach in Brighton
Police officers talk to people on a near-deserted beach in Brighton

Prof Paul Hunter, of the University of East Anglia, outlines four more “strategies” for leaving lockdown. But none is quick and he can’t see any relaxation being introduced until the end of May.

The first is reliant on knowing the percentage of herd immunity in the country. Once that has reached 40 or 50%, he says – not necessarily the height needed to stop infection spread – he believes lockdown could be reduced.

But, critically, he said, “only testing will allow us to know that data.” And the antibody test being promoted by the Government about a week ago, which checks if someone has recovered from Covid-19, looks to be nowhere near ready for roll out. None checked so far has met “the criteria for a good test”.

Prof Hunter outlines a second strategy as following China’s tracing model – seemingly also preferred by Germany.

But this first depends on numbers reducing considerably and, again, testing availability. He explained: “You keep the lockdown until there are few, if any, cases and this is followed by rigorous contact tracing and isolation of cases, and their contacts when they are identified.”

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Coronavirus outbreak

There is a hope a NHS contact tracing app could assist this labour intensive strategy, but it reportedly would need around 40 million users to sign up and share their data – and has raised concerns over privacy.

A third strategy would be to wait for an effective drug to treat the virus, which, Prof Hunter insists, because of numerous trials now ongoing, might not be too far off. But “it’s a big if,” he adds.

The fourth strategy would be to wait for a vaccine. But that, most agree, is a lockdown which is unsustainable.