Change in emphasis: the government’s roadmap for easing the lockdown

11 May 2020

As expected, the government’s roadmap for easing the lockdown involves few steps of substance. It is clear that the government is taking a cautious approach, albeit the change in messaging suggests that it is preparing the ground for making faster progress if circumstances allow as the summer progresses.

In the short term, perhaps the most significant announcement was the "change in emphasis" in terms of going to work. The message is now "go to work if you can’t work from home", in part because the government believes that the previous approach resulted in fewer people working than had been intended. Details of guidance on how this will work will be set out over the coming days, with the steps, plan and information on workplaces published on 11 May.

It is worth understanding why the Prime Minister has not gone further in his announcements, even though there is pressure to ease the lockdown from both Cabinet members and Conservative backbenchers, and both the Treasury and BEIS are well aware of the economic damage caused by the virus and lockdown. 

The reasoning behind his decision to move slowly will help give an indication as to what may happen next. The Prime Minister has stressed the five tests that apply to any relaxation of the lockdown. These are:

  1. making sure the NHS can cope;
  2. a "sustained and consistent" fall in the daily death rate;
  3. the rate of infection decreasing to "manageable levels";
  4. ensuring the supply of PPE and tests can meet demand; and 
  5. ensuring that any adjustments do not risk a second peak which overwhelms the NHS.

Perhaps the most important is test 5. The fear of a second peak – followed by a second lockdown – is a real one. The view across government appears to be that a second lockdown would be much more damaging than the first in terms of business and consumer confidence and much harder to exit.

The Prime Minister also reinforced the government’s determination to pursue a "test, trace and isolate" strategy along the lines of the approach adopted by South Korea. The challenge here is that the number of infections which are manageable (see test 3), will need to be considerably lower than current levels. Newspapers have suggested that a daily infection rate of 4,000 people would be manageable whereas the current daily infection rate is estimated to be 18,000.  This means that more time will be needed to suppress the virus before our testing and tracing capacity will be sufficient to cope with the levels of infection. Depending on the rate of transmission (the R number) this could take weeks or even months.

But underlying the government’s approach is the unspoken test 6 – will the public support an easing of the lockdown?

Polling continues to show that the public remains very anxious about the risk to health of Covid-19 and that support for the lockdown continues to be high. Not surprisingly, the government is reluctant to pursue an unpopular strategy. Criticism of the government’s early response to the pandemic is likely to grow, especially as international comparisons of levels of deaths are likely to reflect badly on the UK. The perception that the government was slow to move in the early stages is likely to make it risk averse now. 

There are also practical issues which flow from the public’s anxiety. Without public consent, it is very difficult for activities to return to normal, even if restrictions are lifted. For example, if the government were to re-open schools, this would not have a positive benefit to the economy if parents refused to send their children to schools and teachers were unwilling to work. All that would happen is that the government would be seen as having lost control.

In recent days, trade unions have been more willing to criticise the government’s approach and have argued against a return to work without adequate PPE, risk assessments and a fully-functioning test and trace system being in place. Ministers may find this approach obstructive but they will also be nervous that such an approach will have public support.

Consequently, it will be a prerequisite for any substantial change in the lockdown for there to be changes in public opinion. Progress on tests 2, 3 and 4 will all help with this. In addition, international evidence that easing lockdowns in other jurisdictions has not caused increases in infections (and there is discouraging evidence from Germany), plus greater emphasis in the public’s mind of the economic costs of the lockdown, as opposed to the health risks of the virus, will be important. The Chancellor will be saying more about the economic measures on 12 May and it is likely that he will say more about how some of the protections for businesses and workers will be reduced over time.

There are other practical constraints on easing the lockdown. In particular, the existing social distancing requirements reduces capacity on public transport substantially. For this reason alone, the government is likely to continue to want those who can work from home to continue to do so for many months yet.

In conclusion, the significance of Sunday’s announcements is not so much about the practical changes that have been announced but about preparing the ground for easing restrictions in future. Even so, on the evidence of Sunday’s announcements, this will be a cautious and gradual process.

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