Boris Johnson has unveiled his roadmap for easing the lockdown in England – putting the country on course to be free of most restrictions by 21 June, assuming that the government’s four tests are all met. In practice, as my colleague Freddie Hayward’s summary of the debate in the House of Commons captures well, the balance of opinion in the Conservative party means it is hard to see how, regardless of what the data may show, England’s lockdown won’t come to an end on that date.
The biggest immediate risk is the imminent return of all schoolchildren on 8 March, including teenagers. The damage that the loss of schooling and socialising has done to many children’s wellbeing makes that risk a no-brainer in my view. Yet, that the reopening of schools is not accompanied by further action on employers who are unnecessarily urging their employees to return to work, means that it is riskier than it needs to be.
[Hear more from Stephen on the New Statesman podcast]
Where the government could go further is on activity outdoors. Given everything we know about how the coronavirus actually transmits, limits on outdoor socialising could easily be eased more quickly, providing much-needed respite for many people to see one another.
That would create further inevitable unfairness – a disease that spreads through airborne transmission means that people who own cars, have gardens and live close to their family can enjoy more safe socialising than those of us who can’t drive, don’t have gardens and live further away from our families. However, just because greater freedoms to socialise outdoors wouldn’t benefit all of us equally doesn’t mean those freedoms shouldn’t be extended as quickly as possible.
But taken together, balancing both the mental and social costs of further lockdown and the health risks of easing restrictions before the vaccine rollout, the government’s plan is overall about right in my view: more importantly as far as Downing Street is concerned, that’s the view of a plurality of voters.
That creates a political headache for Keir Starmer, of course. It’s easy to see how, as lockdown begins to ease in early May, a feelgood factor may lead to a very good performance in the local elections for the Conservatives – and panic in the Labour party. But the roadmap is not without difficulty for Boris Johnson. What will trouble Downing Street is that the biggest supporters of his lockdown approach tend to be supporters of the various parties on the left: opponents of Johnson’s lockdown roadmap might be a noisy minority, but they are concentrated among supporters of the Conservative party, in the press and in Parliament. A tricky fight to hold the line on his new approach may lie ahead.