Lockdown starts to ease

Key lockdown test appears to be loosened as preparations for easing continue

By Daniel Capurro,
Front Bench Edtior
More European countries have laid out detailed plans for easing their lockdowns, while in the UK, the return of Boris Johnson to work appears to have accelerated moves in the same direction.

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Much attention has been given to an alteration in a single line of one of the slides in yesterday’s daily press briefing. The fifth of the Government’s five tests for lifting the lockdown, and the most important one, was changed.

Instead of saying that any easing must not lead to a second peak of the virus, it mentioned a second peak “that overwhelms the NHS”. That is an easier test to meet – although by no means straightforward – particularly as NHS intensive care capacity has grown considerably during this crisis.

Johnson has now been briefed on the impact of various measures to ease the lockdown and it is up to him and his ministers to decide which combination to go ahead with and in what order. He will also have a meeting with Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, who yesterday accused the Government of being slow to react to the virus and slow with an exit strategy.

(In a sign that the Prime Minister is still not fully recovered from his own bout of Covid-19, he is not expected to take part in PMQs today.)

– Clear signs of progress –

On the practicalities of easing the lockdown, the Government appears to be making progress.

The country’s testing capacity is increasing, although there is some debate among scientists over whether 100,000 a day is woefully inadequate or more than necessary, while Michael Gove announced plans to create a national stockpile of facemasks so that the public would be able to wear them on public transport and in enclosed public spaces.

Progress is being made, as well, on the NHS’s contact-tracing app, which may now be trialled on the Isle of Wight. The UK has opted for an app design that other countries have rejected, because it requires data to be held centrally and works less efficiently.

However, the NHS says its version will be fully operational sooner than the alternative created by Apple and Google, and will allow a better understanding of the UK’s epidemic. Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, has said that it should be ready within three weeks.

– A continent-wide experiment –

Hanging over the lockdown decision will be a very large amount of uncertainty. Germany, where the states have been easing the lockdown in a piecemeal fashion, has seen the reproduction rate of the virus tick upwards. That has led to concerned warnings from Angela Merkel, the Chancellor, of a risk of a second lockdown although the country’s leading scientific adviser said other factors mattered too.

Spain and France set out further details of their own easing yesterday, with Pedro Sanchez, the Spanish PM, calling it a path to a “new normality”. Both countries have had far stricter lockdowns in place than the UK, but in some ways, they may ease much faster than Britain.

France, for example, will allow travel within a distance of 60 miles. Like Germany, both countries will have regional variations, something Johnson has been reluctant to do in the UK. The French government also plans to reopen schools this term, but Madrid does not.

As with the initial entry into lockdown, this is effectively an experiment on a continent-wide scale.