UK plans return to 'new normal'

 When Boris Johnson declared the national lockdown almost seven weeks ago, he thought he was taking one of the toughest decisions of his premiership, But that was easy compared with the choices he’s now facing about how to ease the restrictions. On Sunday, he is due to deliver another televised address to the nation unveiling some of those measures. The PM is expected to announce plans to, among other things, reopen more public spaces, allow more children to start returning to school, and get more people back to work. The stakes for Johnson are high. He has to balance the huge economic costs of the lockdown against the ongoing health risks (the UK’s official death toll from Covid-19 overtook Italy’s this week to become the largest in Europe). And he has do this “half-blind because there is still so much that “The Science” is currently unable to tell us about this novel disease”.

The scientific unknowns massively complicate the exit strategy exit strategy, It’s still unclear, for instance, whether we need to stay two metres apart. The UK guidance is based on research that originated in the 1930s. The World Health Organisation recommends a gap of only one metre. Then again, a Chinese study concluded that four metres was a safer distance. To navigate our way out of lockdown, it would also be very useful to know how many people had already been infected, but here, too, opinion is divided. As for the so-called R number – the number of people every carrier is likely to infect – it “sounds like it comes with the comforting certainty of mathematics”, But this figure – thought to be currently between 0.6 and 0.9 in the UK – is hard to measure accurately.

The sheer practicalities of easing the lockdown are equally difficult, How can social distancing work for commuters? If people are kept two metres apart, a 12-carriage train that typically carries 1,000 or more passengers would have room for just 200. The capacity of a carriage on London Underground’s Victoria Line would shrink from 125 to 21; that of a double-decker bus, from 75 to 18. Operating workplaces under these conditions would raise further challenges, Leaked official plans talk of curtailing “hot-desking”, staggering work shifts and installing dividing screens, but that’s not going to be feasible for many firms. There’s also the question of whether companies would be liable if returning staff were to fall gravely ill. In any case, polls suggest that many workers are still very nervous about returning in the first place.

One recent survey suggested that 70% of British voters believe that businesses should stay closed until the virus is “fully contained”, But that’s a recipe for permanent lockdown: even a vaccine won’t eradicate the virus entirely. We’re going to have to accept a degree of risk. When it comes to schools, the case for reopening is certainly overwhelming, The closure of classrooms is hurting all children’s education, but is particularly damaging for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. The risks from easing the school lockdown, meanwhile, seem fairly modest, given that children are relatively unaffected by the virus, and also don’t appear to transmit it much, if at all. Researchers in the Netherlands and Iceland haven’t found a single case of anyone under 18 passing Covid-19 on to their family.

As for the rest of us, we’d better get used to the fact that life is going to change. “We won’t be shaking a lot of hands in the near future.” Nor are we likely to see a return of department stores and other relics of “the pre- Covid-19 age”. In the future, there will likely be fewer waiters and more delivery drivers. All manner of ideas are being put forward as part of our exit strategy, The Government wants us to download a contact-tracing app that can identify all those with whom infected patients have been in contact. There have also been proposals to restrict people’s contacts to a “bubble” of ten family members and acquaintances; to introduce some form of immunity passport to those who have already had Covid- 19; and even to impose a two-pint limit in pubs. We should be wary of such ideas. What we’re debating here are not exceptional measures but a new status quo. And I, for one, am not willing to accept on a permanent basis a “new normal” in which the state tells me who I can meet, while monitoring when and where I meet them.