Summary: The British government seem surprisingly reluctant even to talk about how we might manage the winding down of the current fairly Draconian Lockdown. They have not really understood the importance of managing this as soon as possible and getting discussions going. Many are finding themselves very badly affected by it all and wealthy middle-class individuals in government and the media need to engage now with what is actually happening to the poor. This piece is intended to start a conversation and think about how we might make progress right now that would give individuals at every level the feeling that we can see the time when things substantially return to normal.
Public compliance with the Lockdown has been surprisingly good. We all seem to know exactly what we should be doing, and most of us are indeed doing it. However there are short-term concerns that there are relatively large numbers in the UK who are very close to destitution without any income and without any alternative sources of food. You can no longer turn up at a food bank and hope to get anything. In my own area some food banks have found donations have dropped by more than half while demand has more than doubled. People can only access food banks with a note from their GP for example. However as surgeries are closed those are now very hard to get.
A recent piece (http://outsidethebubble.net/2020/04/06/exit-from-lockdown-take-back-control/ ) have tried to focus on what could already be done without significant effect on the workings of the Lockdown but would give the public an indication that there is light at the end of the tunnel. In addition, another piece (http://outsidethebubble.net/2020/04/12/lockdown-collapse/) looks at the social consequences of not addressing urgently the extreme poverty and destitution facing so many in the UK now. This piece tries to put together an outline of how we might see the escape from Lockdown actually playing out. At present the British government seem quite reluctant even to think about it, concentrating above all things on preserving the NHS. However poverty and the economy are starting to move up the priority list and will soon have to be squared against the support that everyone is keen to give the NHS.
There are interesting examples from around the world about how this might be handled. Probably the least lockdowned country in Europe is Sweden. They have relied much more on the good sense of the people to do the right thing. Elderly and frail people know they must isolate for their own health and security while younger people are still able to continue much as they have done. The PM of Sweden has been criticised for not closing bars, café’s and restaurants and may indeed impose tighter restrictions on them medical soon. Higher education is now only online. Primary and secondary schools remain open. Sweden’s relaxed approach to the epidemic has also meant they are suffering from the same shortage of PPE and equipment that they are in the UK because they also never really thought it would become so desperately important.
One of the key changes that we need to implement in the UK in order to move forward is to increasingly pass responsibility for self protection to the individual, as it is in Sweden, and away from relying on following rigorously the instructions from government dictat. A key component of this must be the use of facemasks. Supplies of course in the UK will be hopelessly limited but effective facemasks can be constructed from fabric pieces or by using scarfs in single or multiple layers. It is clear that a thin layer of paper held on your face by a couple of rubber bands is pretty inadequate and more substantial protection from more substantial facemasks is highly desirable. Individuals must be reminded that the dangers of contracting Covid-19 are just as serious as they always were. Your facemask protects others should you be infected but be asymptomatic. It also gives you a first level of protection against infection by others. However it is your responsibility to protect yourself and others from this deadly disease which has in no way been weakened by the weeks of Lockdown. It is just as lethal now as it was at the beginning. Facemasks will provide one level of protection. Wearing gloves and eyewear such as glasses, sunglasses or goggles further enhance protection. Each of us needs to address how we manage the risks that we will come across in everyday life. Each of us has to look after not just ourselves but everyone that we come into contact with. There is increasing evidence that people catch the disease by breathing and when talking which further increases the importance of wearing facemasks.
Some of the current restrictions are really excessive and almost vexatious. A few could be lifted almost immediately and would give the public a sense that progress is being made. Some other areas are inadequately taken care of and so some additional restrictions need to be brought in.
- We should remove all restrictions of being out of the house provided the social distancing rules are maintained at all times.
- We should permit people to drive or travel moderate distances for leisure or exercise.
- Require everyone to routinely wear facemasks and make that compulsory wherever there is any risk of coming closer than the official 2 m separations. Customers visiting supermarkets and any other business premises should always wear facemasks as should the staff and other employees of the business.
- Public transport users and drivers etc must wear facemasks at all times.
There are other areas that can be addressed almost immediately.
- Parks and open spaces should be opened to the public unless they will attract such a high density of visitors that those visitors will find it difficult to maintain social distancing rules. This would allow places such as National Trust parklands to open though not initially their shops and certainly not the cafés. For example a botanic garden could open the parkland but put greenhouse and exhibition areas s off limits. They could allow entrance to season ticket holders and, if space allows, other members of the public provided overall numbers can be managed to maintain social distancing rules.
- There are issues about reopening children’s playgrounds. Children are notorious for wanting to play with one another and therefore pass any infections around to others. How this is handled not only in specific children’s playgrounds but also in more general open parkland has to be considered carefully
- Businesses that are currently closed should be able to operate provided they can manage social distancing regulations for staff, other employees and customers. All these three categories must wear facemasks at all times. Employers should be legally responsible for ensuring this is carried out.
- Other businesses should be allowed to operate but only provided staff and customers can maintain social distancing rules at all times. All customers and staff should wear facemasks at all times. Again, safety must be a legal responsibility of the employer/business owner. If it is felt that business reopenings should be done progressively it would be best probably to start with small businesses that should be easier to get going and start to bring some life back to the high street.
The second phase will include allowing some social gatherings to be restarted. This is a particularly tricky thing since I know as a grandparent how much I want to see and hug my grandchildren as I have done since they were born. However we elderly are still as much at risk as we ever were and relaxation of some of these rules will inevitably increase those risks if we are at all casual about self protection. Parents need to protect their parents as they have been doing so far. It is inevitable that the elderly and frail will continue to be fairly isolated almost to the end of this escape from Lockdown. Only the vaccine will give full confidence that the elderly can return to normal life. This will be hardest for them.
The next phases could be phased in gradually possibly as follows:
- We can start by permitting junior schools to open. The onus must be on the managers of the schools to make sure that the staff always wear facemasks.
- Some sporting events can be started but played behind closed doors (so no spectators). Only sport that can be carried out to provide full social distancing should be permitted initially. Some can be done fairly easily such as golf, tennis though it is clearly difficult to imagine sports like rugby being a success with full social distancing. Soccer is very popular but it is not clear how easily players can be protected initially.
- Senior schools and universities can gradually be brought back into function, again always requiring that staff, other employees and students can manage with appropriate degrees of social distancing at all times. Neither of these are particularly urgent because the target time would be the beginning of the autumn term. If that cannot be managed then there is little point in opening them until the beginning of 2021.
- Cinemas and theatres could be operated by requiring that rows and seats are left between members or family groups of the audience. Whether this could be done while maintaining any kind of commercial viability is another question entirely. We are getting remarkably used to being entertained over the Internet and the pressures for getting back into cinemas and theatres are not what they might otherwise be.
- Similarly, it is likely that restaurants, cafés and bars only reopened after the pandemic is substantially over vaccines are available. These are venues that are fundamentally social and where eating and drinking inevitably means removing ones facemask. Unfortunately this means that the economic pressures on such businesses by the end of the year will be very acute.
It is essential that we appreciate that what we in the public have learned in recent weeks about keeping ourselves safe will have to be maintained until we are sure we can be saved by other routes. Ultimately that has to be with the availability widely of an effective vaccine. There is a great deal of effort going on into these vaccines and it will help that the enthusiasm to find solutions will mean that trials that are usually sequential can be carried out in parallel. The
We must also remember that if we find that we have moved too quickly in any of these areas then we simply have to be prepared to reverse them. It is important that the country starts to engage with the conversation about how all these matters are to be handled. Many of the suggestions will have to be considered carefully because each will have health aspects but also economic aspects. Our economy will be damaged badly by coronavirus particularly given how long it has gone on and how poorly prepared we have been to manage it. Yet it is our economy that will provide the opportunity to start to repair the damage that has been done and hopefully to move on well beyond that.