From John in Brighton: Baby steps But Is It Too Fast?

13 May: All of last week we sought answers about relaxation of lock-down and for once the Government was of a piece. “You’ll have to wait and see what the Prime Minister says on Sunday” was the repeated mantra. This seemed like such a key moment of revelation that for once I made a point to listen in live…and it felt rather bathetic. An outline was put forward but we’d have to wait another twenty four hours till his next pronouncement for details.  
So what have we got? “Stay at Home” is ditched and now it’s “Stay Alert”. The OED offers two definitions for alert – firstly able to think clearly and be intellectually active so I’ll continue the bridge three times per week and add Soduku on the other days. Secondly to be vigilant and quick to notice potentially dangerous situations which means honing our skills in social distancing, washing our hands even more and politely asking anyone who coughs or sneezes to go and get tested. That kills two birds – public safety and Matt’s chance of occasionally hitting the testing (in more ways than one) target. Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick seemed to agree with much of my interpretation but added it also means stay at home as much as you can. Eh! So why not just stick with Stay at Home which people seem to understand and are largely abiding by? As Nick Cohen pointed out in The Observer most people share one common behavioural characteristic in that we don’t want to die and the daily rate of infections is well high enough to concentrate most peoples’ minds. We can go out for more than one dabble of exercise daily – I get that bit. We can meet one person from outside our household but two metres apart and in a public place. Why not in my back garden? Why only one considering you could cross paths at two metres with fifty people on the weekly supermarket visit? If possible work from home but if you can’t then you are encouraged to go back to work but not on public transport….and certainly not without a face covering. The videos of yesterday’s commuters showed considerable increases in numbers on the London underground and many with faces as naked as the Rokeby Venus. 
And why have the other three nations been more cautious in any relaxation and indeed the “Stay at Home” edict survives in all three? Does the virus really change its characteristics as it crosses Offa’s Dyke, Hadrian’s Wall or the Irish Sea? Are the Welsh, Scots and Irish different in their susceptibility to corona? I think not to all of those and any variations are simply down to an ideological basis, have no apparent logic and at worst could create some confusion.
I fully acknowledge that the decisions of when and how to exit lock-down are incredibly difficult and at some point the water must be tested and further changes determined incrementally or in reverse. I’m neither an infectious disease pundit nor an epidemiologist but I’m worried that although the government refer to the changes as baby steps the rather more nebulous Stay Alert and get back to work if you can may be more sweeping than first they seem. Even with social distancing maintained there is undoubtedly increased risk of closer contact than has been the case in lock-down. Indeed it is axiomatic that the current falls in new cases and deaths is because of the strict lock-down. Even so yesterday before the relaxation kicks in there were 3403 new cases and 627 deaths and bear in mind this is a likely underestimate as it only includes those who tested positive. The oft-quoted R(eproduction) number is between 0.5 and 0.9 so not far below the cut-off at 1.0 which is seen as the red line. In my humble opinion I’d be with the other Home Nations and keep a tight lock-down pro tem with perhaps some liberation of outdoor activity as my tentative neonatal step. It feels like a tug of war between health and the economy and I’d be adding my heft to the health side at present. Lives that are lost cannot be recovered whereas one can but hope that the economy can be resuscitated even if it is a long and slow process – Germany rose from ruin in 1945 to become the strongest nation in Europe. Secondly I worry that the push to start employment and business could be counter-intuitive in that if there is a second spike and reintroduced lock-down this could be a more lengthy and damaging process in the long run. Maybe I need to look on Amazon for a pair of rose-tinted glasses although I see that the BMA are also now suggesting that the changes could be too quick and risk a second spike.
I’m wondering who is driving this change. It was Professor Neil Ferguson who advised the government to stop their ill-judged policy of herd immunity and replace it with lock-down albeit belatedly but unfortunately he fell on his sword earlier this month after breaching his own advice. Who is now the main source of medical advice and on what evidence is the current advice being given?  Last week Matt Hancock seemed to be emphasising that the population’s health was the top priority in any planned changes and there should be no compromise that might induce risk. Yesterday morning to my surprise he was on Breakfast TV saying, and I quote, “that it is important that people can get back to work because there is a massive massive (sic) economic cost to what we are having to do for health reasons. And although I don’t like that I am absolutely determined to ensure that the health of the nation is protected”. Is Matt dissembling? Does he really support the importance of people leaving their homes to work or is he following BJ’s bulldozing party line? And is BJ taking a leaf out of Donald’s book? And we don’t seem to have heard from Dominic Cummings lately – has he had a part to play? I’d be interested in details of the process….
…and equally of how the Covid is going to respond to its newfound little window of opportunity.