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7 May 2020updated 23 Jul 2021 9:28am

Boris Johnson is facing the defining decision of his career over how to ease the lockdown

The measures that the government can take to alleviate the economic crisis also risk increasing Covid-19 infection rates.

By Ailbhe Rea

It is crunch time for Boris Johnson this morning as he convenes his cabinet to thrash out the final details of tweaks to the lockdown, which he is expected to announce on Sunday. 

The papers are full of speculation and reports of what these first steps out of lockdown will look like. It is fairly certain that outdoor activity will be the first area where restrictions will be eased, with picnics, driving to the countryside for a ramble, and leaving the house multiple times a day for exercise expected to be permitted from Monday. But other details are unconfirmed: mainly because they haven’t been decided yet, and draft plans are subject to change.

The differences of opinion within the cabinet on the subject are well-known, and this morning’s meeting takes place against the stark backdrop of the Bank of England’s warnings that the UK economy could shrink by 14 per cent this year, in what would be “the country’s biggest economic slump in 300 years”. (Given the huge number of assumptions and uncertainties involved, this is a “plausible illustrative economic scenario” rather than a forecast from the bank.)

It is a stark reminder of quite how much is at stake in these decisions. Unemployment is predicted to rise to 9 per cent, with many families on the brink of destitution, while many other families grieve the loss of loved ones to this virus. The levers that the government can pull to alleviate the strain on the economy are also, in many cases, those that create the biggest risk around transmission rates.

Reopening schools, for example, is one of the most effective levers the government can pull to allow people to return to work, but it would also remove one of the most effective ways of containing the disease. Professor Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, last week said there was “no doubt” that reopening schools would increase the reproduction rate of the virus. A new report from the University of East Anglia (that has yet to be peer-reviewed) has found, by comparing data from 30 European countries, that closing schools, along with closing bars, restaurants, and clubs, was the most effective measure to contain the spread of the virus. Reverse-engineer that, and re-opening schools and the hospitality sector will carry the greatest risk of Covid-19 transmission. 

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It is fairly certain that the government’s approach will be to lift one restriction at a time over a number of months, paying careful attention to how each tweak impacts on the R rate. So it’s fair to say that Sunday’s announcement will be one of a series of important announcements in the weeks and months ahead, and this cabinet discussion will be one of several crunch talks. 

But there is no way of overstating quite how important the choices made today will be. Collectively, the decisions over the ending of lockdown will be the definitive ones of Johnson’s career. He himself alluded yesterday to the likelihood of an inquiry into the government’s coronavirus response when this is over. History is watching this cabinet meeting and this Prime Minister, as they move to lead the country out of an economic crisis and a public health crisis that are inextricably linked.

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