“…Most of the failures in Britain’s response to Covid-19 have arisen from an excessively centralised and top-down approach. There has been nothing world-beating about the development of a test, trace and track system. The development of the NHS’s own, and unique, tracing app has been a Whitehall farce.
Localised outbreaks are highly likely, as the government’s science advisers have learnt, and the response should be local, through public health officials who know their areas and have the experience to act. They can do so effectively. For, once we are out of this lockdown, with its huge costs to the economy, business and education, there must never be another one.”
The drumbeat from Westminster is getting louder and points to an unmistakable conclusion. Boris Johnson will this week announce that the two-metre social distancing guidance will be reduced to one metre from July 4. Pubs, restaurants and cafés, many of which would not be viable if the two-metre guidance had remained in place, will have a chance of salvaging some trade.
It is too late for the millions of pints of beer that have had to be thrown away, but this move is better than the alternative of continued closure or trading so restricted that it is hardly worth the effort.
Reducing the two-metre guidance also provides a better opportunity for sorting out schools in time for next term. Gavin Williamson may not inspire much confidence, but the education secretary’s ambition of getting all pupils back into school in September, backed by the prime minister, has a far better chance of success if social distancing guidelines are relaxed.
We have reached a crucial stage in the response to Covid-19. The past few days brought two pieces of genuinely good news. One was the discovery by a team of Oxford University scientists that the decades-old steroid dexamethasone reduces the death toll among those who are seriously ill with the coronavirus.
The other was the announcement on Friday by the chief medical officers for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland that the Covid-19 alert level can be reduced from four to three. Ministers had hoped that this could have happened sooner, but it is better late than never.
Now it is up to the prime minister. There is still a chance to save what is left of the summer. He once talked of picking the ball up from the back of the scrum. It is important that he does not drop it again. His most recent address to the nation, on May 10, with its questionable equations and talk of world-beating systems, was a bit of a mess.
The first requirement this week, then, is clarity. It will be a moment when the things that Mr Johnson is good at, the colourful turn of phrase and mischievous delivery, are not required. As we move out of a public health emergency, people want clear and consistent messaging, not sub-Churchillian rhetoric.
A second requirement is that the government leads, not follows. “Guided by the science” has been the mantra for many months but, as we report today, the government appears to be guided as much by opinion polls and focus groups. Those polls show a drop in Conservative support and in Mr Johnson’s approval rating, particularly after the Dominic Cummings episode, but also that the public is cautious about easing lockdown measures. The main justification for the harebrained 14-day quarantine scheme for arrivals from abroad appears to be that it is popular with voters. Although we have faith in the great British public on many things, we would not expect people to be experts on virus transmission.
It is not surprising that people are cautious about easing the lockdown. For three months or more the government has been telling them to stay at home or keep their distance. But now is the time for leadership. The quarantine scheme, which currently includes arrivals from low-infection countries, is as daft as it looks and is no doubt being widely flouted. When the law is an ass, it can expect to be kicked. An alternative, a testing system for arrivals, with quick results, is already on the table.
Mr Johnson’s big fear, of course, is getting blamed for a second wave of the virus. Ministers haughtily dismissed the easing of measures in other countries, as they did the initial lockdowns, on the grounds that these countries were setting themselves up for second waves which Britain would avoid. But that, by and large, has not happened and, where there have been further outbreaks, these have not been widespread. In Germany and South Korea, which have been more successful at managing the pandemic than the UK, further outbreaks have been localised and identifiable.
That is an important message and lesson. Most of the failures in Britain’s response to Covid-19 have arisen from an excessively centralised and top-down approach. There has been nothing world-beating about the development of a test, trace and track system. The development of the NHS’s own, and unique, tracing app has been a Whitehall farce.
Localised outbreaks are highly likely, as the government’s science advisers have learnt, and the response should be local, through public health officials who know their areas and have the experience to act. They can do so effectively. For, once we are out of this lockdown, with its huge costs to the economy, business and education, there must never be another one.