The road out of lockdown: a one-way journey?


The road out of lockdown: a one-way journey?

“As road maps go, it’s hardly the full AA atlas,” Boris Johnson’s keenly awaited plan to lead England out of lockdown takes us “out of the cul-de-sac we’ve been stuck in since December”, but we’re still a long way from the open road. Aside from the welcome return of all pupils to schools on 8 March (see opposite), the only other change on that day will be that two people from different households will be able to meet in a public outdoor place. Thereafter, restrictions will be eased at three- and then five-weekly intervals, if conditions allow. On 29 March, there will be a relaxation of rules on outdoor sport and socialising. All being well, shops, hairdressers and pub gardens will then reopen on 12 April. That will be followed on 17 May by an easing of the rules on indoor socialising in homes and hospitality venues. Finally, on 21 June, something resembling ordinary life may return. The PM insisted that, while the pace wouldn’t be fast, the country was on “a one-way journey to freedom”.

It seems Johnson has finally learnt from his mistakes, He has reined in the “characteristic over-optimism” that led him to declare last March that the country could “turn the tide in 12 weeks”, and that later led him to promise a “significant return to normality from November”, and later still to assure us that some aspects of life would be “back to normal by Christmas”. This is a deliberately cautious road map (although other parts of the UK are being even more circumspect). Having won praise for “under-promising and over-delivering” on the vaccine rollout, the PM might pull off the same trick on lockdown easing. He will not have forgotten that a “bumper crop” of local elections is being held on 6 May, What a boost it would give the Tories in these polls if he were able to lift some restrictions early.

We understand the need for caution, and Johnson’s desperate desire to avoid having to impose another disastrous lockdown, But “his exit plan is still too slow”. It threatens to squander all the economic advantages we might otherwise gain from our “world-beating” vaccine roll-out. It’s ridiculous, We’re set to be the first European country to offer a jab to its entire adult population, by 31 July – yet one of the last to reopen. A third of English adults have already had a jab; Covid cases are “plummeting”; hospital admissions are down 74% in just over a month. Yet we’re being fobbed off with assurances that we will soon be permitted to sit next to a friend on a park bench – something many people are doing already. Why will tennis and golf suddenly become less dangerous in England in a month’s time, when they’re already permitted in Scotland?

The longer lockdown has gone on, the more reasons the Government has found to perpetuate it, The inertia is partly due to “standard mission creep”; there’s also an element of political expediency at work here, as tough measures still enjoy a lot of popular support. But that may not remain the case for much longer. “Beware the balmy ides of mid-March.” When the weather improves, “the public desire for freedom may change quickly”.

The road out of lockdown will feel too slow for some, and its cautious pace will prolong the agony for struggling businesses. But Johnson was nevertheless “right to disregard the clamour from those who have already been proved calamitously wrong twice before”, and to heed instead his scientific advisers. Impressive as the vaccine roll-out is, it’s not a silver bullet. No vaccine is 100% effective and many people won’t have it: levels of vaccine refusal are “worryingly high among some ethnic minorities”. Modelling by government advisers had suggested that lifting all restrictions at the end of April could lead to an extra 91,000 deaths. Even the PM’s cautious plan is expected to lead to more hospitalisations and deaths. “Learning to live with the virus does not mean letting it rip again.” The successful vaccination drive doesn’t mean we can relax our efforts to keep a lid on Covid, If we allow it to stage a resurgence, we increase the odds that a vaccine-resistant strain could emerge that sets back our efforts by months. “If we can make it to the summer, then a seasonal fall in cases combined with the vaccines could allow us to get back to normal for good. It would be crazy not to do everything we can to get there safely.”