David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the recent general election.
Two weeks ago, I made the case on this site that it was too early for the Government to set out its ‘exit strategy’ from the lockdown, despite growing demands from the media and the Opposition.
I gave two reasons why the Government was right to resist the calls. First, any strategy should be based on emerging evidence and it was better to leave any decisions as to such a strategy until the evidence was clearer.
The second argument was that talking about the exit strategy might muddy the waters. At that point, the clear priority was to maintain social distancing, especially in the middle of a sunny Easter weekend.
I still think that this case was right. Maintaining the message discipline of “Stay Home Save Lives Protect the NHS” was, and remains, the priority.
But I am beginning to worry that there may come a time when there will be a need for a more nuanced message – but the public won’t be willing to hear it.
The compliant response to the Government’s social distancing instructions has contributed significantly to slowing the spread of Covid-19. Indeed, many people have gone further than the Government has asked. The number of children going to school is much smaller than the number entitled to schooling because they fall within an exception. “Work from home if you can” has been interpreted by many as “work only if you can work from home”.
Public support for the restrictions has remained strong, with evidence that tougher messages would be supported. Unlike other countries, there is no evidence of a mass movement calling for restoring people’s freedoms. Even when a minority of police officers have very obviously over-stepped the mark, the public have shrugged with indifference or even cheered them on. The belief that the love of liberty is our defining national trait looks like a romantic delusion.
The British people are worried. They are concerned that they may die or that a loved one might die. Every day, they hear of hundreds more deaths, they learn of thousands seriously ill. For even the Prime Minister, it was touch and go.
And, yes, for many it is a period of acute economic insecurity and discomfort, cooped up in flats. But for others, it is an extended holiday of Netflix and Zoom chats and appreciating the April sun from the garden. The message that it is our patriotic duty to stay at home is reaching a receptive audience.
Of course, this cannot go on for ever. The lockdown was necessary and it has given us time. The Government now faces the toughest of choices.
We could suppress the virus almost to elimination and then, as and when we have small outbreaks, quickly identify them and lockdown those who have been infected. We will have to maintain the lockdown for a time yet, and we will need the ability to test and contact trace with great efficiency.
Alternatively, we could maintain social distancing, but start to allow more and more of society to return to some degree of normality. This would reduce the economic pain, and some comfort may be taken from reports that the peak of infections may have pre-dated the lockdown.
The fear will be that any relaxation leads to a second peak, followed by a second lockdown that will be impossible to relax. The Government will be blamed for taking a decision that directly results in the deaths of thousands; the economy takes an even greater hit.
I am sympathetic to those who want to relax the restrictions sooner rather than later. A full suppression strategy would have to last at least a year and that it would result in an impoverishment that would blight this country for a generation.
But I do foresee a problem with any relaxation, however controlled and cautious. Identifying which restriction you are going to loosen – whether by sector, geography or age – is one thing; successfully implementing it will be another. This brings me back to my earlier point. Such has been the success of the instruction to “Stay at Home”, getting people to leave their home will be very difficult.
Let me give a specific example. All the evidence points to the fact that a young child is not at severe risk from Covid-19; nor does there appear to be much evidence of the virus being transmitted from children to adults. It is also clear that the closure of primary schools has a very detrimental impact on the economy and the education of children, especially from those with disadvantaged backgrounds. The case on epidemiological, economic and humanitarian grounds for re-opening primary schools is strong.
And yet, were tbe Government to announce that primary schools are to re-open primary schools in the next few weeks, I fear that this would not happen in the way intended. It is worth remembering that the closure of schools was somewhat forced on the Government because large numbers of teachers and pupils stopped going to school. Could we be confident that an order to re-open primary schools would, in reality, be implemented? The reaction to Emmanuel Macron’s decision to re-open French schools suggests not.
Any strategy to relax restrictions on the lockdown will have to be devised on the basis that there will be considerable public resistance to doing anything other than “stay at home”. This is testament to the success of the current communication strategy, but it does make it harder for us to step away from the current situation in a measured and orderly way.
How to address this? First, Matt Hancock has made it clear that test, track and trace will be a large part of the next stage. Putting aside the epidemiological arguments, a comprehensive testing strategy will need to be part of any strategy to reassure the public.
Again, let us return to primary schools. If the decision is to re-open primary schools, we need to reassure teachers that we will be able to identify quickly evidence of teachers being infected. By testing, we pick this up early. Our testing strategy has to be integrated with our exit strategy and our communications strategy.
What might this mean in practice? I would suggest a large, randomised programme of testing of primary school teachers. We will quickly know if teachers are at risk. The same approach should be taken with any other sector where the restrictions are loosened.
My second point is that we are prepared to react; we are willing to fail fast. If testing shows that infection rates increase noticeably where we have relaxed restrictions, we reverse those relaxations quickly. And we say that is what we will do all along so that there is no ‘gotcha’ moment when there is a U-turn but an honest acceptance that this is the prudent way to move forward.
The time is fast approaching when the Government will have to set out what the next step will involve. Its main concern has been that the lockdown might not hold, but it cannot ignore the risk that it holds too well. Any strategy to loosen the lockdown will need to convince an anxious public that the Government is not taking a reckless gamble with the health of our citizens. Integrating our approach to testing with the loosening of restrictions will be essential.