David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the recent general election.
Easing the lockdown was never going to be straightforward. The public was broadly united in supporting its introduction; we are divided on how we escape it. Our attitudes, shaped by circumstance and temperament, vary greatly. For some, the current restrictions are an unconscionable constraint on our liberties; for others, any relaxation is a reckless gamble with the lives of thousands. A third category is uncertain as to what is now allowed and confused as to the rationale for any particular changes.
For my own part, I think the broad strategy of the Government is sensible. A wholesale abandonment of the lockdown would be reckless and, as Ryan Bourne very persuasively argued on these pages, ineffective in terms of reviving the economy.
It is not the lockdown that is changing people’s behaviour; it is the fear of the virus. But nor should the Government simply maintain a lockdown which had elements that look to be largely irrelevant in terms of reducing the death toll, but which significantly diminished our prosperity or quality of life.
Unfortunately, a sensible strategy has been undermined by poor execution. Overstating the scale of the changes in the Thursday papers, rowing back on the Friday, making the announcement on the Sunday but only providing the supporting documentation on the Monday and Tuesday; it all gave the impression of being haphazard, rushed and improvised at a time when the public want to believe that Ministers have a plan.
In defence of the Government, this stage of the process was always going to be the hardest (a point I have been making on this website for some weeks). As some activities are released from lockdown and other activities are not, this was always going to look messy, arbitrary and unfair. But, given that these were the first baby steps away from the lockdown, I would hope and expect that the Government is thinking hard about how it can ensure that future relaxations go more smoothly.
A lot of this is basic communication skills, something that the Government is usually good at. Consistency of message is vital. That means Ministers must resist offering good news unless they are confident that good news is going to be delivered. Promising something one day only to withdraw or postpone it the next will only damage credibility. Now is a time for under-promising and over-delivering. It is also a time to avoid cutting corners. Make an announcement when you have got everything in order. Parliament should not be sidestepped.
Communications really matter here. Many people are nervous about any kind of return to normality. They need to be reassured that the Government has thought this through and is proceeding carefully which, despite appearances, I think it is. The challenge for the next stages will be how to persuade the public that any relaxation is sensible.
Let us take schools. The Government plan, to re-open primary schools for Reception and Years 1 and 6 is perfectly reasonable. The risk to the lives of the children is miniscule; the risk of wider transmission in the community and to teachers appears to be very low. Teachers’ union are entitled to seek reassurance as to how this would work but their response (especially that of the NEU) has been obstructive and irresponsible.
Nonetheless, the Government has got a problem. For the short and long term good of the children and the economy, it needs to get schools open. This is not just about the plans for 1 June, but about school re-opening more generally. The plan announced by the Prime Minister involves all primary school years attending by 22 June, plus time at school for Years 10 and 12. At the time of writing, it is not clear how the Government is going to get there.
In my last column, I suggested that some schools should re-open in advance of 1 June. For those schools, there would be intensive testing of teachers and more widely in the community in order to pick up very quickly if there was any increase in transmission. Consequently, teachers and parents would know that if the scientific advice about the risks of re-opening primary schools was wrong, we would know fast enough to change course before much harm was done.
If it turns out as expected and re-opening primary schools does not pose a risk, we can move forward with more confidence elsewhere where testing cannot be so targeted. If, however, we learn that this does cause an increase in the disease, better that we know that in a controlled way early.
Had we done this a few weeks ago, we would be more likely to get all primary schools open on 1 June. This could be the basis of a compromise now, although I would back the Government in sticking to its current timetable.
However, when it comes to future progress in re-opening schools, a test, learn and adapt approach would make sense. We should look to pilot as soon as possible some schools going back with all year groups, perhaps with more relaxed rules on social distancing. If we are serious about a swift return for all primary school pupils, let us start getting the evidence in a controlled way.
There are other areas where we should take a scientific approach. Our two metre rule is more stringent than most other countries and restricts public transport to a fraction of its usual capacity. It is hard to see how hospitality or live entertainment is workable with such a rule in place whilst productivity in construction and manufacturing will be severely damaged.
Maybe we need a two metre rule but maybe we don’t. There is a case for piloting some factories and construction sites to operate a one metre rule. Again, combine that with intensive testing, see if there is any significant difference in infection rates and use that evidence to determine whether a general relaxation could be possible.
Localised piloting could be combined with a more general, regionalised approach, as both I and ConservativeHome have suggested. It is very clear that London is in a different position to the rest of the country. A full lifting of the lockdown in London would be premature (how many from across the country would descend upon London’s pubs?) but, assuming no increase in infections, there is a good case for London to move faster than the rest of the country in those activities unlikely to result in people travelling to the capital. Yesterday, the Prime Minister’s spokesman left a door open for doing so.
Neither pilots nor regional variations are politically easy, but none of this is going to be easy. Recognise that different conditions apply in different places. Advance where we can. Build up evidence when we need to and demonstrate that we will be led by that evidence. Less haste, more speed.
Easing the lockdown is going to require determination, patience and skill. There have been missteps of late, but it is in all our interests that the Government succeeds.