Put bluntly, Boris Johnson’s government is playing fast and loose with thousands of lives by relaxing the lockdown prematurely.
It can no longer claim to be “following the science” because so many of its scientific advisers have voiced alarm. The devolved governments of Scotland and Wales have seen the same advice and data on Covid-19’s spread and opted to ease the lockdown far more cautiously.
Nor can the government convincingly claim that its criteria for easing the lockdown have been met. The NHS has survived the first onslaught, and the death rate is falling, but the infection rate remains disconcertingly high (with around 8,000 new cases a day in England) and the government’s own Covid alert level remains at four, the highest being five.
The “world-beating” track-and-trace scheme that Johnson promised to have up and running by 1 June – once a pre-condition for lifting the lockdown – is nowhere near ready, with Dido Harding, the former TalkTalk chief who is overseeing the programme, saying it will not be fully operational for a month.
Its mobile telephone app has been delayed by technical problems. Many of the 25,000 newly trained tracers are complaining of poor preparation. Tests cannot be completed within 24 hours. Local councils have not been fully engaged. Even if the scheme were ready, the current infection rate would swiftly overwhelm it. Professor David McCoy, director of public health at Queen Mary University of London, told the Observer it was “just a fragmented collection of different programmes” and “a mess”.
The relaxation measures appear random and ill thought out. People will be able to visit clothes shops and car showrooms, but not libraries or second homes. MPs can attend parliament but the faithful cannot worship. Children can go to school but not have haircuts. Dentists were told last Friday (29 May), without any notice, that they could reopen on Monday – an impossibility, given the lack of personal protective equipment.
Professor John Edmunds, a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), calls the easing of the lockdown a “political decision”. Jeremy Farrar, the director of the Wellcome Trust and another Sage member, says Covid-19 is still “spreading too fast to lift lockdown”. Professor Calum Semple, a third Sage member, says: “Essentially we’re lifting the lid on a boiling pan and it’s just going to bubble over… We need to get it down to simmer before we take the lid off.”
Over the weekend the Association of Directors of Public Health urged the government to reconsider, while Professor Robert West, a member of a sub-group that advises Sage, told the Guardian that the government was taking a “huge risk” and “not taking its responsibilities for political leadership seriously”.
The government is hastening to ease the lockdown under pressure from the Treasury and others alarmed by the economic devastation that it is causing, and from the libertarian right, which abhors the curtailment of individual freedoms.
But it is hard to avoid the suspicion that some of last week’s announcements – the reopening of schools, the bringing forward of the date for launching the test-and-trace system – were designed to distract public attention from Dominic Cummings’ escapades. Headline-grabbing targets and projects that seldom come to fruition have long been part of this government’s modus operandi.
And there may well be a third reason. The public is increasingly ignoring the government’s rules – especially since the Cummings fiasco. Parks, beaches and beauty spots are packed. People are entertaining friends and family in their back gardens. Social distancing is breaking down. The police are giving up on enforcement. As Ken Marsh, head of the Metropolitan Police Federation, told the Daily Telegraph: “I don’t think the public are taking much notice of what’s laid down in front of them.” Far from easing the lockdown, the government is simply playing catch-up.
Johnson promises to reimpose lockdown measures if death and infection rates start rising again, but he may find that impossible. Cummings’ failure to apologise, his absurd story about visiting a beauty spot on his wife’s birthday merely to test his eyesight, and the Prime Minister’s refusal to sack him has enraged a public that has endured ten weeks of hardship and sacrifice. It has destroyed the government’s authority and exposed its leaders to ridicule.
If Johnson or those cabinet ministers who so cravenly tweeted their support for Cummings seek to invoke civic duty and collective responsibility, they can no longer expect people meekly to do as they are told. Tracers who tell apparently healthy people they need to isolate for 14 days can expect defiance, not compliance.
As 26 leading scientists and public health officials told Johnson last week: “Effective epidemic control requires the public to trust and respect both the message and the messengers who are advocating action. This trust has been badly damaged.”
There is an entirely legitimate debate to be had over whether the government should have imposed the lockdown in the first place, or whether it should have rapidly upgraded its testing and tracing capacity, protected the vulnerable and let others take their chance, as happened in several south-east Asian countries that successfully countered the pandemic.
But the worst of all worlds is to impose a lockdown with its immense social and economic costs, only to squander all the hard-won gains – and virtually guarantee a deadly second wave – by lifting it too early.