Analysis: England cautiously continues lockdown easing in 'major gamble' from the Government

23 June 2020, 19:23

A sign requesting people stay two metres apart to try to reduce the spread of COVID-19 is displayed in Kingston upon Thames
A sign requesting people stay two metres apart to try to reduce the spread of COVID-19 is displayed in Kingston upon Thames. Picture: PA

By Ben Kentish

LBC's Westminster Correspondent Ben Kentish gives his latest analysis on the lockdown easing, the government's "major gamble," and how Test and Trace is our "best bet" for living alongside coronavirus.

Lockdown is almost over. From 4 July, people in England will be able to go to pubs, restaurants and cinemas, meet friends and family, get a haircut and go on holiday – providing, of course, social distancing rules are followed.

The latest round of easing announced by Boris Johnson is by far the biggest yet. Only a few types of businesses, including indoor gyms, swimming pools, beauty salons and nightclubs, will have to remain closed – for now at least.

Read more: What are the new coronavirus lockdown rules in England?

And even then, government sources are keen to emphasise that there could be further progress within weeks. Gyms and indoor leisure facilities, for example, are scheduled to open in mid-July.

Taken together, the announcements mean that, in ten days’ time, life will begin to look much more normal than it has for many weeks.

Still, it will be some time before many of the things we once took for granted are allowed to resume fully.

While the government has relaxed the two-metre rule, it is being replaced with a “one metre plus” rule, meaning that being in closer proximity to others must be mitigated by the use of facemasks, screens, enhanced hand-washing and other such measures, while people entering public venues will be asked to hand over their contact details so that they can be traced if need to.

It will be some time before a trip to the pub or a meal out resemble the experiences we are used to.

Even with those caveats in place, there is no doubt that the government is taking a major gamble.

The changes announced today will lead to a significant increase in social contact, and that means a significant increase in the risk of transmission.

The government says that the guidelines it has laid out mean it can be confident that this step can be taken without risking a second peak.

But with the rate of transmission still high, it is still a big risk.

Boris Johnson and his team are all too aware that if there is a second spike in cases, people will blame today’s announcements.

They will say that the government moved too soon, that it prioritised the health of the economy over that of the public.

In truth, there is no such dichotomy: the lockdown itself posed a real risk to public health, not least because of the mass unemployment that would have followed had so much of economy remain closed for weeks longer.

That said, a second peak would be a disaster all round: for health, of course, and for the economy, but also for the reputation of Boris Johnson and his government, which polling suggests is already diminished by its handling of crisis.

Ending the lockdown safely means having an alternative in place.

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As people begin to mix more, we need another way to stop the virus spreading rapidly again.

That alternative is supposed to be the Test and Trace system, which is designed to keep a lid on infections and pave the way for localised lockdowns where needed, rather than the government having to shut down the whole country.

The problem is that it is far from clear that the system is anywhere near to functioning as it should.

Test results are being returned too slowly, only a fraction of positive cases are being detected and referred to the system, and tracers have been unable to reach quarter of even those who are referred.

With the lockdown coming to an end, Test and Trace needs to get up to speed – and fast.

As Chris Whitty, the UK’s Chief Medical Officer, made clear at tonight’s press conference, this virus will be around for a long time to come and we have to find a way of living alongside it.

Test and Trace remains our best bet for doing so successfully. We all have a part to play too – by following the new guidance rather than behaving as if the virus has gone away

Only time will tell whether, taken together, that will be enough.