There are two basic phases to tackling the Covid-19 crisis: suppression of the disease; and managed revival of the economy. The “normal” that we return to will be a new normal. The suppression is absolutely necessary to save lives; and there will continue for some time to be a raft of rules and restrictions necessary to follow. But because of the immense collateral damage done by the lockdown – economic and health related – we must ensure that on easing the restrictions, we are fully prepared and ahead of the curve the moment that the medical and scientific advice allows us to start the process.
In the suppression phase we can see, with hindsight, that we were slow compared with the best of other countries. In this next phase, we must position government to roll out the revival of the economy and as much of normal life as is possible, with efficiency and clarity of strategy. This is why we have today set out a contingent exit plan outlining the stages involved in reopening, what each stage will mean for businesses and individuals, and the conditions required to move between them.
The key to doing so is to identify the core tasks and ensure there is a proper structured command and control in each area. For example, Lord Deighton has been now appointed as the leader on personal protective equipment (PPE). Such appointments need to be made across government for the tasks essential to making a process of normalisation effective and realistic. This is a list of the most obvious.
1. Mass testing, including the development of the community force necessary to assist the testing process at scale.
2. PPE. Mask acquisition and production on a vast scale essential for the protection of frontline staff, including not only the priority workers in the NHS and care homes, but in retail, transport and the service sector.
3. Business consultation and partnership so that in each sector there is a clear and active line of working together to maximise the impact of the easing whilst minimising the risk. e.g. what measures would work in the restaurant or hospitality sectors? In car factories and so on.
4. Therapeutics and Vaccines. Utilisation of every means nationally and globally to identify those treatments which can reduce the severity of the disease.
Acquisition and distribution of vaccines. Knowledge here and globally of progress: in the UK, where we are developing our own potential vaccines, but also abroad where several promising vaccine candidates are being developed, so we know what is showing most hope, and beginning conversations now with relevant governments and companies to ensure we can acquire them.
5. School openings with close consultation with teachers and heads as to how practically to make this work.
6. Tech – not just through NHSX but through the close harnessing and involvement of the tech sector across every aspect of both battling the disease and easing restrictions.
7. Tracing – with active consideration of South Korea-type alerts and tracking; together with the community by community plan to do manual as well as technological tracing.
8. Shielding, Social distancing and Compliance – how do we do it effectively especially for older age groups; advice on parks, public gatherings etc.
9. International travel. When, how and on what terms will it be possible to restart airline activity.
10. Communications. How do we explain and keep people informed because the very fact of setting out a plan and explaining it, helps people plan in their own lives and restore confidence.
In each case, there should be a senior figure with the right experience appointed to lead the work, with a senior politician alongside and a task force of those with direct expertise in the field. All should report into the committee of four now meeting, under the chairmanship of the PM; and of course to the wider Cobra committee.
We should also be prepared – and explain this to the public – to experiment with a mix of measures, age, sector, schools, even geographic, to learn the practical lessons of what is working and what isn’t; because inevitably there will be adjustment and learning from experience as we release from the lockdown.