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1 June 2020

By reopening so soon, is England heading for a catastrophe?

The government does not appear to have overcome the scientific and logistical challenges necessary to lifting lockdown measures.

By Stephen Bush

Schools in England have begun reopening today — after a fashion. Is England on the verge of a catastrophic mistake in reopening too early?

Several of the scientists who advise the government have gone public with their concerns that the rate of community transmission is too high to begin safely reopening. The Association of Directors of Public Health have issued a rare public rebuke of the government, saying that the five tests to ease the lockdown have not been met, and calling on the British government to delay reopening until the necessary infrastructure to properly test, trace and isolate new cases is in place.

Ben Walker has looked at the data across comparable countries and his conclusion, too, is that England is embarking upon its reopening at an earlier and therefore riskier point than our European counterparts.

Away from the medical and public health challenges, there are clear logistical challenges that the British government has failed to master — or even, it seems, to appreciate. Parliament is set to return to working as normal from tomorrow, although social distancing will still apply in the House of Commons chamber. But the government is still unclear how exactly votes will be conducted, with the plan to test today a kilometre-long queue for MPs to vote, in advance of the first division tomorrow.

Schools have begun to reopen today, but many have had to remain closed because they have been unable to overcome the difficult logistical barriers to reopening in a socially distanced manner.

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The deputy chief medical officers Jonathan van Tam and Jenny Harries have both dismissed the idea that contact tracing will create opportunities for fraudsters. This is hard to reconcile with the money and time that the government has spent, through HMRC and the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), to eliminate tens of thousands of spoof accounts pretending to be the taxman, or the work the NCSC has done with telecommunication companies and the banks to fight the same. We know that fraudsters can and will seek to exploit people by mimicking email messages from “Test and Trace NHS”, which can be done in a matter of minutes.

Fortunately, that’s a problem with a known solution, provided that communication and direction across government is conducted in a clear, competent and consistent manner. The difficulty is that it is far from clear that we have a government capable of tackling the coronavirus crisis in a competent, consistent or clear manner: and to the clear health risks of England’s reopening, we can add the additional and troubling handicap of the government’s lack of grip and operational competence.