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23 June 2020updated 23 Jul 2021 9:49am

Today’s lockdown update is a political decision, not a scientific one

The government is taking a calculated – but uncertain – risk with public health in order to address its effects on the economy.

By Ailbhe Rea

Boris Johnson convenes his cabinet this morning to sign off the latest easing of lockdown measures, and will announce the plans in a statement to the House of Commons at 12.30 pm.

The Prime Minister is expected to announced that pubs, restaurants, galleries, cinemas, hotels, hairdressers, and many other businesses in the hospitality and leisure sectors, will be able to reopen in England from the 4 July, while the two-metre rule is set to be reduced to “one metre plus”; people must stay one metre apart, but accompanied by other mitigating factors such as face coverings, ventilation or sitting side-by-side, ideally in combination.

This is the most significant and delicate moment in the journey out of lockdown since the measures were introduced, with much at stake from both an economic and a public health perspective.

The public health risk is that, bluntly, reducing the distance from two metres to one doubles the chance of catching the virus (a 1.3 per cent chance compared to 2.6 per cent, according to the Lancet, a difference which some will argue is negligible in absolute terms).

The concern from many in the scientific community is that the numbers of new cases per day in England is not yet low enough to take on that risk; the number of new cases was below 1,000 yesterday, but Monday’s figures tend to be lower due to a lag in weekend data collection, and scientists on the Independent SAGE have argued that the number needs to be consistently and significantly below 1,000 before a change to the recommended distance is made.

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There is further concern from scientists that the reduction will send a dangerous “back to normal” signal, with negative behavioural consequences in terms of compliance with other measures to limit the spread of the virus.

[See also: How a dangerous belief in British exceptionalism led the UK to ruin]

On the other hand, the concern from an economic perspective is that these changes won’t send enough of a “back to normal” signal to a population that has complied to an unexpected extent with the lockdown measures and has displayed reluctance around lockdown easing. The hospitality sector is reopening, but will enough people be prepared to take the risks for businesses to turn a profit again? Today’s announcement is seen as vital for the hospitality sector, which produces around 4 per cent of the UK’s GDP, and for the economy more widely. But the difficulties are not to be understated, with many businesses worrying that it will cost more to open at half capacity than to remain closed.

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The rule around the distance people must keep from each other is almost a metaphor for the difficult balancing act the government is hoping to pull off. The level of social distancing has never been set with absolute certainty by the scientific community, but by politicians conducting a risk assessment. There is no perfect trade-off between health and the economy, as Stephen has written before. But today’s announcement can broadly be seen as coming from a government that is prepared to take on more risk from a public health perspective, in order to revive an ailing economy.

We have no vaccine, no comprehensive virus treatment, and a test and trace system that won’t be fully functioning until September. What we do have are masks, hygiene rules, the facts around the lower risk of outdoor transmission, and the advice to stay one metre apart. This is not a scientific decision, but very much a political one, and the risk involved is huge. The idea that the UK is going “back to normal” is wishful thinking.