Summary: The draconian British lockdown rules may have worked but several are arbitrary and unnecessary. Some can easily be adjusted without any increased risk to the rate of infection. That would help to retain the confidence of the general public. Responsibility must be passed increasingly to the individual and away from central authorities. Limits on outside activities are unnecessary provided social distancing rules are obeyed, as they now are largely. We can also move towards easing restrictions on many businesses by requiring much wider use of facemasks provided social distancing rules can be met at all times.
The Covid–19 Lockdown in the UK has been broadly successful. We are all told to stay at home and go out only for necessities such as food, medicine and exercise. Those at higher risk of serious infection are told not even to go out. Unfortunately the route for the UK to exit from lockdown has not been articulated by the UK government. Other countries have established panels to look at what might be done but, as with every other aspect of this pandemic in the UK, we are lagging behind, presumably hoping that something might turn up.
It seems likely that the current lockdown will work and the infection rate decline dramatically. The vast majority of people are following the rules pretty well. Threats to impose even stricter rules are likely to create too much resentment. The “stay at home” advice is much less onerous for those setting these rules who have large houses with multiple rooms and gardens. Those living in cramped conditions with no garden, possibly with shared bathrooms and kitchens and often with several children, already find the rules very onerous.
General acceptance of the rules is essential if we are to get through this terrifying pandemic. Any easing of these restrictions would encourage people to feel progress was being made. Indeed any suggestion that current restrictions are unnecessarily strict will worsen adherence significantly.
We are told that we need to follow “social distancing” by making sure that we are at least 2 m (6 feet) from those outside our household. The choice of 2 m is distinctly arbitrary. It is claimed that this is all that is needed to protect us from coughing and sneezing although I know from personal experience as a hayfever sufferer that I can happily sneeze much further than 2 m. Nobody mentions simply speaking which is one of the best ways of spreading the disease and probably how much of it is actually transmitted. Most people spit to a greater or lesser degree when talking, though they may not realise it. The 2 m limit was chosen once it was decided that using facemasks is pointless. That is clearly preposterous. In clinical settings they are used routinely and not just because they look good on television. It is inconceivable that any facemask use will make things worse. The basic paper ones are probably not much use, but simple fitted ones with an integrated filter must give a significant level of protection to the wearer and their contacts.
If we were encouraged to use facemasks routinely, cross infection between individuals can only be improved. As a minimum it stops an individual from touching their face as we all do repeatedly. Wearing facemasks would give everyone much greater confidence that a 2 m social distance might actually work. However social distancing must be maintained, probably longer than most other restrictions. Wearing a face mask makes it clear the individual is engaging seriously in our shared project to conquer this pandemic.
The current restrictions on visiting parks, beaches, countryside and other recreational areas are important only if there is a risk that the crowds become so great that social distancing cannot be maintained. In that case those parks should indeed be closed. However, pictures of lots of people on Primrose Hill and most other locations over this last weekend showed that on the whole people are well separated from others outside their own family group. Images of police cars chasing family groups sitting well away from others on the grass in the sunshine are just silly and widely recognised as such. If some of the rules that are being imposed are clearly ridiculous we will be less likely to follow the others. Provided social distancing rules are being observed there really isn’t any point in restricting people from being outside.
The same arguments apply to leisure travel. Family groups driving to another location for pleasure are simply not going to increase the risks of increased infection. It’s what you do outside the car both at home and wherever you’re going that matters. The rules must be followed but travelling for pleasure is a ban that is difficult to justify. People need to be discouraged from going to very popular areas such as Snowdonia and the Peak District. However population densities in the more remote parts of the country are very different from those in the Capital. The rules must allow differences where appropriate.
Similarly, restricting exercise to once per day might make sense if you are a middle-aged cabinet minister but if you have a family with energetic children there really is no possible justification provided you and members of your family can maintain the social distance rules properly. Even a short trip out of the house can ease the pressures that so many feel by being trapped at home, young and old. With children there are always problems of them being inclined to play with others and parents must make sure they are safe.
There are, however, many situations where it is simply not possible to follow social distance rules. Particularly in London and the other metropolitan areas public transport is inevitably crowded. This is a situation where much is to be gained and nothing lost by requiring all public transport users to wear a face mask.
Many businesses have been closed simply because they are deemed non-essential. In many cases with appropriate crowd and staff management, social distancing rules can be maintained. Organisations will need to make adjustments to how they operate to make this possible. Only if they can be confident that this has been achieved should they be allowed to open. It is highly likely that social distancing will have to become the norm until we have a vaccine for Covid 19. That is likely to be nearly a year away and we have to find a way of getting our economy back and functioning again. It is essential that we start to move towards achieving that. Every day that goes by more and more damage is being done.
The main responsibility has to be transferred away from government dictat to relying on accepted social pressures on the individual to do the right thing. Each of us must be engaged in doing everything to maintain the correct social distance. Individuals must also do everything to insist that wherever they are that social distancing must observed by others at all times. It is the only way we will get out of this.
In conclusion there are things that can be done safely, without compromising all that has been achieved already for those who are symptom-free and have been symptom-free for at least seven days:
1. Remove all restrictions on being out of the house provided social distancing rules can be maintained at all times.
2. Require everyone to routinely wear facemasks whenever there is a risk of others being closer than this social distance. Public transport use should be required to wear facemasks under all circumstances.
3. All businesses should be able to operate provided they are able to ensure social distancing rules can be followed by all customers and all staff. All customers and all staff entering any premises should be required to wear facemasks at all times.
These simple changes will be easy to communicate, should have little negative consequence if any and would allow the public to feel that progress was being made and that they can look forward to a time when normal life might actually resume.