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Why easing the lockdown is a bottom-up effort

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Why easing the lockdown is a bottom-up effort
Ministers wrestle with public opinion

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The Telegraph

Thursday May 21 2020

Front Bench


Good morning. The infection data continues to bring positive news on the epidemic, but the Government is rightly wary of getting the next easing of the lockdown wrong as it scrambles to get ready.

PM insists contact tracing will be ready by June 1, but ministers appear to retreat on reopening schools

By Daniel Capurro,
Front Bench Editor

The Prime Minister insisted in Parliament yesterday that the UK’s track and trace system would be in place by June 1. That’s likely to solely involve human contact tracers to begin with, with the NHS’s mobile app to be launched later.

With new cases now dropping to very low levels and the number of people in hospital with Covid-19 at its lowest since late March, Britain is fast approaching the point at which it will make sense to swap the national lockdown for a much more nuanced approach.

– No room for error –

However, there is understandable nervousness and caution because, quite simply, ministers cannot afford for the reopening of the economy to go wrong. If the messaging isn’t good enough, the risk is that the public won’t go back to work. If the contact tracing doesn’t work effectively, they risk a second peak in infections and a catastrophic second lockdown.

So it is rather unsurprising that ministers are moving cautiously. On contact tracing, the system is reportedly close to ready, but the Government wants extra time to write guidelines that are as clear as possible to avoid the confusion that followed the first set of easing.

On schools, the Government appears to have retreated. The June 1 target for reopening primary schools is still in place, but it will be up to councils whether schools in their area reopen. Many won’t. Not having primary schools open will continue to drag on the economy as working parents struggle with childcare, but ministers clearly couldn’t afford a politicised fight with the unions.

Camilla Turner, our education editor, explains in detail how the plan has unravelled over the last 10 days.

– From the bottom up –

The Government and the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, have tried this week to draw the public’s attention to the economic damage of every extra week in lockdown. But as Camilla Tominey examines here, there is a realisation in Westminster that the success of the “Stay Home” campaign means that any move to get people out of their homes will have to be a “bottom-up” one, with ministers providing encouragement rather than orders.

The problem with such an approach is that, so long as key planks of the economic system, such as schools, are missing, it is difficult for people to return to normal. A gradualist approach could end up being a very slow one. That might be better for keeping the virus in check, but it isn’t ideal for the economy.

The alternative, however, of a “big bang” unlocking could backfire spectacularly both in terms of keeping the public on board and keeping the virus at bay. So a slow, economically painful, creeping back to normal it is likely to be.


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Westminster Round-up

You can find all of our Covid-19 coverage on our special coronavirus home page, while the latest news is on our liveblog.

What’s a metre between friends? | One area where balancing effective messaging, the economy and scientific advice is most evident is in the two-metre rule for social distancing. Official World Health Organisation guidelines are that just one metre is necessary, and Spain is the only other major economy to have opted for two metres.

That matters because the square footage taken up by two-metre distancing around a person is almost four times as large as for one metre. That makes it a much larger burden on businesses and workplaces that want to reopen, and some have lobbied for it to be reduced.

One adviser to the Government, Professor Robert Dingwall, told The Telegraph earlier this month that the distance was set at two metres, rather than one or 1.5, because the public couldn’t be trusted to accurately judge the distance.

A review of the rule by the Sage group of scientific advisers to the Government has, however, reportedly advised against changing the recommended distance, arguing that it would “blur the message” and yesterday Downing Street insisted it would remain at two metres and pointed to evidence that the risk of infection is much higher at one metre than at two.

Back to the future | Meanwhile, Parliament’s experiment in virtual participation is over. The Commons is now in recess and the Government has decided that the use of video calls and electronic voting will not continue on its return. Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Leader of the Commons, insisted that Parliament would not be returning to its usual hustle and bustle and that social-distancing rules would remain in place. It’s not clear, though, quite how that will be practical. The queues for voting alone could stretch out of the building, if socially-distanced.

The decision appears to have been driven almost entirely by optics. It’s rather difficult for Boris Johnson to insist that it is now safe for the public to return to work, if MPs are still taking part in PMQs from their book-lined studies. How wise a decision that is may be tested if the new contact tracers find themselves dialling a lot of Westminster numbers.


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