The United Kingdom went into lockdown too late, a decision that has cost lives – because the higher the coronavirus infection rate when restrictions were imposed, the higher the death rate. Now it looks like the four nations are, to varying degrees, leaving too early because Boris Johnson wants, for political reasons, to get back to business as usual. As his quarantine plans show, the prime minister is led not by science but by opinion polls.
It would be extremely shortsighted for the government to think it has defeated coronavirus and ahead of time push the economy back to its carefree existence. No doubt ministers are enviously eyeing New Zealand, which lifted all its restrictions but only after reporting no new Covid-19 cases for more than two weeks. We are nowhere close to eradicating the virus, yet the government wants the positive headlines about opening up without having done the hard work.
Modellers estimate that there are 17,000 new coronavirus cases each day in England alone, and that Covid-19 deaths will plateau by mid-June at between 100 and 250 a day. Mr Johnson hankers for some semblance of normality and, perhaps believing his own propaganda, wagers that the risks of lifting restrictions prematurely are smaller than his own scientists predict.
The prime minister seems hell-bent on meeting a deadline that possibly only he remembers setting. On March 19, Mr Johnson promised the country from Downing Street that his government would “get on top” of the coronavirus pandemic within 12 weeks. That time frame means Britain is meant to have “turned the tide” by next Tuesday. It will not have escaped the prime minister’s notice that while Britain’s cases are going down, outside our borders they are going up.
Mr Johnson wants to exploit this moment. He aims to contain the virus to a manageable level and can argue for a briefer lockdown than that needed for a more onerous suppression. The advantage is that economic activity can be restarted earlier because the virus is not having to be wiped out. The disadvantage is that the virus remains widespread. Given that there is still a very high number of UK cases – we are thought to have about five times that recorded in Italy – there is a question of how the government’s test-and-trace system will cope.
The UK has not adopted the World Health Organization’s approach and developed a case “finding and testing” system tasked with reaching out to the public and making it easy for them to have a coronavirus test performed if necessary. Instead of local surveillance to find the unseen cases silently spreading in the community, the government has given Serco a £90m contract to run call centres to field inquiries from people who we do not need to worry about: those who self-identify as being sick.
In his rush to meet that target, Mr Johnson is gambling with the health of the nation. In prioritising wealth over health, he must explain why the public can go to pubs, but not attend the socially distanced funeral of relatives. They are still wondering why cleaners can come into their homes, but family members cannot. There is an added layer of suspicion: Downing Street appears to have calculated that it is politically unsustainable for Britons to be locked up at home when Europeans sun themselves on beaches this summer.
The prime minister has been emboldened to disregard the advice of his own advisers, which makes it harder to gain public consent for difficult trade-offs. Trust gives politicians licence to take the hard decisions to impose quarantines, shut down businesses and advise physical distancing. It also permits them the right to lift such restrictions. Mr Johnson’s government now has the joint-lowest approval rating worldwide for its management of coronavirus. The prime minister must not downplay the threat to life that easing the lockdown early will entail. He may reckon that it is better to avoid panic than be honest about the hazards ahead. But that would be misguided, especially as the scientists who counsel ministers fear a real risk of a second wave of infections. If they are right, Mr Johnson’s actions would have not only sown confusion but also have cost lives.