David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the recent general election.
“Where is the exit strategy?” That is the question being asked by many journalists and commentators, sometimes the same people who were calling for an even more draconian lockdown just a few days ago.
In the current circumstances, the most prevalent media bias is the bias in favour of news. Something new must be happening. Restrictions should be tightened. Or there should be an announcement as to how they should be relaxed. One or the other. They certainly shouldn’t just stay the same because that wouldn’t be news. And the nation demands news.
In fact, I am not sure that the nation demands news. I think the public recognise that the Government faces some difficult choices, that patience will be an important virtue and that we cannot expect this crisis to pass very quickly. Not every day will see a significant development in this story.
Of course, the Government should be planning its exit strategy. The current lockdown is necessary but unsustainable, and we will have to find a way out of this. A grown-up, public debate about the relevant trade-offs may well be helpful in finding the way forward. However, for the moment, the less said about this by the Government, the better.
The first reason for this is that the Government does not want to muddle the message. With the Easter weekend upon us, maintaining social distancing must be the priority. Once the Government starts talking about relaxing restrictions – even if contingent on future falls in hospital admissions cases – that message will become less clear. A Minister thoughtfully musing about the low-risk activities that could be allowed at some unspecified time in the future will be interpreted by some as “panic over, time to get on with our lives”.
The second reason is that, as Liam Fox argued on this website earlier in the week, there is a lot of information we still don’t know. There is uncertainty about how prevalent the virus is in society, the number and effectiveness of tests that can be implemented, how many people we can contact trace, the timetable for developing treatments and a vaccine.
All of these matters are relevant to determining an exit strategy, and it is quite possible that we will know much more about this in a few weeks’ time than we do now. To put it another way, if the Government currently has an exit strategy it almost certainly won’t be the strategy that is pursued at the point at which we exit.
At this point, the task of Ministers is to ask the right questions, so that they will have the evidence they need to move forward when there is the opportunity. Ideally, they will want to identify those activities or groups of people where a relaxation would have a significant boost to the economy but a very limited impact on the spread of the virus and, ultimately, deaths. It may well be that primary schools and outdoor work – including construction – fall within the sweet spot but Ministers will want as much as evidence as possible.
But it will be a desperately difficult judgement. We are going to have to be grown-up about the trade-offs. Even amongst the lower risk groups, there are likely to be deaths. Any relaxation will have risks but, on the other hand, continuing the lockdown will also result in deaths directly and indirectly. An impoverished nation won’t be a healthy nation.
In my last column, I touched on the fact that some will recover their freedoms earlier than others. This will need to be handled with some care, if only to maintain the lockdown for those not yet released from the restrictions. Some will feel an acute sense of injustice but any exit plan is likely to be staged with some arbitrary lines drawn. Again, I expect the public may be more understanding of this than the media.
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The news that the Prime Minister had been admitted to hospital and then moved to the intensive care unit came as a jolt to most of us, even if it was clear that he had been hit hard by the virus. The outpouring of support and sympathy for him from colleagues and opponents (and, indeed, those who have been both) was both warm and sincere. The country is united (in a way we haven’t seen for some time) in rooting for him.
This is a personal drama, but it is also important in terms of how we are governed. To state the obvious, it is far from ideal for the Prime Minister to be incapacitated at this point but nor does this create some kind of hopeless power vacuum.
We have Cabinet Government and that will continue. Yes, there is some ambiguity and uncertainty about what might happen in certain, hypothetical circumstances but our constitution has always involved more than a little ambiguity and uncertainty.
The current arrangements – with Dominic Raab deputising – can work. In part, this is because we are at a point in this crisis when the focus has to be on delivering what has already been announced and preparing options for the future. The absence of a Prime Minister should not be fatal for either task.
Another key factor is how the senior figures behave. Dominic has struck the right tone in not giving the impression that he has taken sole command, whilst his colleagues appear to be rallying round. They will all know that this is what the nation expects.
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There is a tendency when a big event occurs for some people to argue that, as a consequence, a particular course of action must now be followed. It so happens that the course of action is something they have always believed in, long before the occurrence of the big event.
In that spirit, here is my suggestion. The Sunday trading restrictions should be lifted. At a time when we are so dependent upon supermarkets because we have to eat at home and yet we want to avoid crowds at those supermarkets, it is ludicrous that, for one day a week, shopping is restricted to six hours.
To be fair, liberalising Sunday trading laws is my longest standing political position. At about the age of ten, I attempted to buy a plastic football from Peachey’s Newsagents on Woodbridge Road. “Sorry, young man, I’m not allowed to sell you that,” I was told.
“But this is a shop that sells plastic footballs and I am a customer wanting to buy a plastic football, we have a willing buyer and – but for the law – you would be a willing seller and what possible societal detriment is there in me purchasing this plastic football (putting aside, perhaps, the imposition on Mr and Mrs Monteith when the plastic football inevitably goes over the garden fence and disturbs their Sunday afternoon) and, therefore, what business is it of the law to interfere in such matters and doesn’t this demonstrate the need for Mrs Thatcher’s Government to get the State off people’s backs and unleash this country’s potential and, in doing so, allow a small boy to have a kick-about?”, I probably said in response. It may have been a formative moment.
Anyway, if shops want to open for more than six hours on a Sunday, I think they should.