No government has a template for the perfect exit from lockdown; everyone is experimenting cautiously while there remains no cure for Covid-19. Exit too late and economic damage is too costly, but exit to early and public health damage is too costly. Other countries are trialling staged exits: primary schools in Denmark, bookshops in Italy, and garden centres in Austria. The UK has yet to spell out when to how it will lift lockdown restrictions. I do not envy our political leaders as there is no easy answer.
Much depends on the purpose of lockdown. If it is to slow the spread of the virus and protect the NHS then after 30 days this seems to be working, however if it is to ensure the post-lockdown world is safer for the public then it has yet to deliver. Without testing of the public we won’t know who is harmful and who is harmless, so in the absence of a robust identification system, the risk to the public has not been reduced.
Listen to epidemiologists or virologists and you will be told the right time to exit is when the risk to life has been significantly reduced and the virus threat tamed; listen to politicians or finance ministers and you will be told the right time is when the public become intolerant of restrictions and civil disobedience is a real possibility, a date determined by behavioural not medical science.
Since the UK lockdown began a medical expert lobby has overshadowed the behavioural science one; it has managed to push public behaviour further and faster than any ‘nudge unit’ could have achieved in three weeks. However, with no imminent ‘all-clear’ date coming from the medics, political impatience will grow and public support will waver, the behavioural lobby will take precedence again. What the public will tolerate will become more important than what the public need, such is political expediency.
Behavioural Insights may now be independent from government, but it is still part owned by the Cabinet office, so retains considerable influence. Why does this matter? Because an exit date might be set based on what the public want not on what they need. This has been done before: thirty years ago the public were told that BSE was no threat based on a photograph of John Gummer and his daughter eating burgers.
Lockdown is a time to cope and a time to learn. The coping stage, slowing spread of the virus in order to enable the NHS to cope with a demand surge, appears to be working as planned. The learning stage has been a disaster without a testing programme or sufficient test kits. Others have said that we need to conduct mass public testing and contact tracing to eliminate the health risk so that people will be safer after lockdown. There is a global shortage of test-kits and PPE so to coin a phrase: ‘we are where we are’.
Currently the public tolerate lockdown restrictions because they see the government has little choice given the virus impact on other countries and health services. It is only right that the NHS – both national treasure and unofficial state religion – be protected and the lockdown will achieve this. But will the public be demonstrably safer when lockdown is lifted or will they be simply told so by a latter-day John Gummer?
The truth is we won’t be fully safe until there is a vaccine or cure and this is many months away and a lockdown of more than three months is untenable both politically and economically. There will be a period between end of lockdown and full access vaccine of probably six months to a year, during which our authorities hope there is no second wave requiring a new lockdown. I believe the technical term for this period is ‘squeaky-bum’ time, but it is here where the political risk lies.