Is The UK Coming Out Of Lockdown A Month Too Early?

Paul Waugh
Health secretary Matt Hancock (Photo: PA Video - PA Images via Getty Images)

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It’s not been a great few days for Boris Johnson’s claims to be guided by the science on Covid-19, nor for his credibility in keeping his promises. The government began the week by ditching a promise to “wait” for a falling ‘Alert Level’ before easing lockdown. It has just ended it by appearing to ignore warning signs about rising infection rates.

The two are related. It’s worth reminding everyone that the PM told the nation a few weeks ago: “If the alert level won’t allow it, we will simply wait and go on until we have got it right.” The nation’s Alert Level remains at 4, one above that required for “gradual relaxation of restrictions”, but we’ve gone ahead anyway with reopening primary schools and other changes.

As Johnson’s new mantra is ‘Stay Alert’ not ‘Stay Home’, it seemed perverse to then trash his newly crafted alert system. No.10 tried to shift attention away from this glaring failure to follow its own conditions by pointing to the fact that the separate ‘five tests’ for easing lockdown had now all been met. Yet the worrying news today is that one of those tests may not have been met.

That test is Test Number 3. It was, to quote the PM in full, a requirement “to receive reliable information, reliable data from SAGE showing that the rate of infection - the number of people catching Covid - is decreasing to manageable levels across the board”.

Today’s new modelling from Cambridge University and Public Health England (whose members have frequently stood alongside ministers in No.10 press conferences) suggested that the R number was not decreasing but increasing in the North West and South West. And remember that key element of Test Number 3 “across the board”. That surely means in every part of the UK.

Curiously Yvonne Doyle, PHE medical director, admitted Test 3 had been broken, but waved it away as unsurprising: “Our estimates show that the regional R numbers have increased [my italics] although they remain below one for most of England - this is to be expected as we gradually move out of lockdown.”‌

At the evening briefing, Matt Hancock tried to shift attention away from that bit of bad news, saying people should look at reports “in the round”. He pointed to the much better news from a survey by the ONS and Oxford University suggesting the number of new coronavirus cases had halved in the UK.

But Hancock didn’t do himself any favours by ignoring what the government’s own chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance had said earlier: that in England the R number may be “between 0.7 and 1” and in “some places” very close to one. Instead of acknowledging that, Hancock talked about the UK (not England) reproduction number remaining between 0.7 and 0.9.

It was perhaps therefore no surprise that the health secretary stood alone at the No.10 podium, the first time he has appeared without a scientific or medical adviser, or NHS or Public Health England staffer, at his side. With ministers appearing to ignore advice on imposing a travel quarantine too earlier this week, plus the UK Statistics Authority attacking ‘misleading’ figures, it seems once again that the government has ‘had enough of experts’.

The most glaring omission of all came when Hancock tried to suggest that even higher R numbers in some regions need not stop the national move through its lockdown adjustments. He said that rapid interventions to stop outbreaks would be key and “the Joint Biosecurity Centre [JBC] is in fact being built to advise on that”. ‘Being built’ means it is not yet ready.

Another key weapon against outbreaks, the local roll out of the NHS Test and Trace system, is not ready either. You can’t manage new outbreaks without the JBC and test-and-trace fully operational. Which brings us back to Test 3: infection rates have to be at ‘manageable’ levels.

There is the added complication of what a ‘local approach’ means. If the ‘north west’ stays above 1, does that mean Manchester, Liverpool and all the towns of Greater Manchester will see lockdown measures reimposed? What happens at the borders between the ‘north west’ and ‘the north east and Yorkshire’ and ‘the Midlands’? Will we see a Passport-to-Pimlico style border check?

On the day when the death toll officially passed 40,000, giving the UK the second worst mortality numbers in the world, the worrying R numbers will add to the case of those who think the UK should have waited until the end of June, not the start of June, to change its restrictions.

The PM keeps saying the lockdown easing is ‘conditional’. But how many conditions have to be breached for him to pause his timetable of a return to normality? And having raised public expectations on everything from BBQs to haircuts to pub-going, is he prepared to be unpopular by slamming on the brakes? Don’t bank on it.

Quote of the day 

“Remember we only came to government in December.”

Grant Shapps, on Sky News, socially distancing himself from Tory administrations since 2010. 

Friday cheat sheet 

Health secretary Matt Hancock pleaded with the public to avoid anti-racism protests which break lockdown rules this weekend as “coronavirus remains a threat”.

All hospital staff, outpatients and visitors must wear face coverings from June 15, the health secretary also announced.

The R value - the person-to-person reproduction of Covid-19 - in England has risen to between 0.7 and 1.0. ‌

The Equality and Human Rights Commission announced it was launching an inquiry into the “long-standing structural racial inequality” exposed by the pandemic.

Britain’s welfare system needs a stronger link between “what you put in and what you get out” to tackle cynicism among working people, Labour’s new Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Jonathan Reynolds told The House magazine. He sparked a pretty heated internal party debate.

Brexit negotiations have again broken up without significant progress and with a frustrated EU accusing the UK of “backtracking” on previous commitments.

What I’m reading 

Is Nixon 1968 The Model For Trump 2020? - Project Syndicate

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This article originally appeared on HuffPost.