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Why easing the lockdown would be a big risk for the government

A rise in Covid-19 infections and deaths, or in redundancies, could upset ministers’ plans.

By Patrick Maguire

Do as he says, not as he does: professor Neil Ferguson, whose research into Covid-19 was the trigger for Boris Johnson’s decision to impose the lockdown in late March, has resigned from the government’s scientific advisory committee after flouting social distancing rules and allowing his lover to visit him at home.

Until the Telegraph revealed his liaisons last night, Ferguson – a Sage member whose Imperial College London research predicted 250,000 deaths without lockdown – was one of the faces of the science that ministers tell us they are being led by. Now, as Ailbhe outlines in more detail here, he has become a poster boy for those who believe the measures are asking too much of the public and ought to be significantly relaxed.

What does that mean for public buy-in for any continuation of lockdown beyond this weekend, when the Prime Minister is likely to ask us to hang on in there for another three weeks? Polling points to widespread public support for the measures continuing in their current form for now, so perhaps not all that much.

What is much likelier to change how the public does distancing – and, indeed, how they might yet come to view the government – is the story that appears alongside the tale of Ferguson’s exploits on most of this morning’s front pages. Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, is mulling a sharp cut in the furlough rate from 80 to 60 per cent of an employee’s monthly salary from July.

The plans have been spun as a bid to kick some life back into the economy and get business moving again. Ministers are fretting publicly about the cost of the scheme, now up to £8bn and 6.3 million recipients – with both Sunak and Matt Hancock comparing that figure to the amount the government is spending on the NHS. It might seem curious for the government to criticise a measure designed to keep people at home for keeping lots of people at home. But expect to hear that line again and again in the run-up to Sunday’s announcement on where we go next.

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We know that the firm preference of ministers like Sunak and Conservative backbenchers is to ease restrictions as soon as possible, be that in the name of personal liberty, the economy, or freeing up cash for the health service. Yet the reality is that they are rolling the pitch for a shift in policy that could have drastic consequences – be that if businesses respond not by reopening but with redundancies, or if the R number, and with it infections, deaths and pressure on the health service, shoots back up. 

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Coming as it does after a day on which the UK was revealed to have the highest death toll in Europe, and the release of the government’s scientific advice revealed ministers ploughed on despite having been warned of the dangers of handshakes and mass gatherings, today’s talk of a return to something that looks more like normal than the status quo could yet look very premature indeed.