Opinionista Peter Hain 30 June 2020

Boris Johnson’s imminent lifting of the lockdown doesn’t mean it’s time to celebrate or throw caution to the winds

Although the British lockdown has to end or economies globally will tank and depressions will last for a generation, it has to be replaced by more focused and sophisticated testing, tracing and isolating of Covid-19 cases.

“Freedom Pass” and “Independence Day” were the cheering headlines from British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s tabloid allies after he recently announced lifting Covid-19 restrictions.  

From Saturday 4 July, businesses, restaurants, bars, cinemas and hotels will be able to reopen in England, along with places of worship, libraries, community centres and outdoor playgrounds.

Yet, as psychology professor Stephen Reicher, a member of a government scientific advisory committee, observed:

“People may have the willpower to endure hard times when they are convinced that it is necessary. But the evidence from past pandemics shows that they won’t abide by restrictive rules if they think that the danger has gone away.”

Although much was made by Johnson of reducing the UK’s two-metre physical distancing rule to one metre, this is not necessarily a good thing.  

“One metre is roughly the distance we ordinarily maintain with others. So reducing it to one metre is akin to removing any restrictions from distancing, and hence functions as another signal of back to normal.”  

Reicher’s point was that it could promote a euphoric abandoning of discipline. And precisely that quickly followed on beaches and in parks and other public areas with reckless abandonment of distance limits. There was even a brawl among young men on a South Wales beach. 

It all amounted to a British midsummer madness of street parties, raves, unlicensed music events and beach invasions: there were 500,000 on Dorset’s shores alone, drinking, braaing and littering, leaving behind over three million tonnes of rubbish.

As an Observer editorial on 28 June put it: “The daily mortality figures, and a rate of new infection that would be a cause for draconian panic in most other nations, are apparently to be taken as an indication that the virus is now under control. 

“It is a measure of that wing-and-a-prayer approach that this weekend increasingly beleaguered police forces…. were no doubt hoping for thunder and lightning, rather than clear government guidance, as their best defence against a repeat of the huge crowds and sporadic scenes of violent disorder of the last week… [with] the reopening of many venues and businesses… we will be entering another world of a baffling anomaly. 

“Pubs will be open, but schools will largely be shut; beaches will be heaving, but millions of workers will remain furloughed. With an eye on 1,000-a-day infection rates that, if sustained, will, by reasonable estimates, result in 30,000 more deaths, a senior government scientific adviser insisted: ‘This is not party time.’”

Boris Johnson still doesn’t have a fully functioning testing and tracking programme of the kind Germany, for example, so successfully deployed from the outset.

Someone only too well acquainted with both countries – similar-sized near-neighbours in northern Europe – Liverpool football manager Jürgen Klopp, poignantly observed: “An alien looking at it from outside would think we came from two different planets.”

Official figures of confirmed Covid-19 cases have Britain at over 300,000 and Germany under 200,000. But the comparative death rates are stark: well over 40,000 in Britain and under 9,000 in Germany: rounded up, this is equivalent to current death rates per 100,000 people of 65 and 11. Meaning Brits are six times more likely to die from Covid-19 than Germans.

In English care homes, over 5% of deaths have been from Covid-19 compared to under 0.5% – that is, less than one-tenth – in Germany. 

Lifting or easing lockdowns have seen spikes across the world, from a church in South Korea to a meat processing company in Germany to a squat in Italy. In war-torn countries like Yemen and Afghanistan, there is no chance of containing the virus.  

Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump’s brazen advocacy of lifting lockdown restrictions has seen daily infections soaring back to April highs, with a world-beating 125,000 already dead and many more to come. It prompted a BBC correspondent to wryly observe of Trump’s claims:

“Not so much flattening as fattening.”

Sir Jeremy Farrar, Director of Welcome Trust and member of government advisory body Sage, told the BBC:

“It’s on a knife-edge, it’s very precarious, particularly in England.” He predicted an increase in new cases soon and a second wave towards the end of the year in the British winter, probably because in the cold and wet the virus lasts longer in the air and on surfaces.

Although lockdown has been necessary in the short term to avoid health services being overwhelmed, it has to end or economies globally will tank and the coming depression will last for a generation. But it is also a very blunt instrument. Unless it is replaced by much more focused and sophisticated testing, tracing and isolating policies – which Britain does not yet have – lifting it can be very dangerous.

In any case, without a vaccine, we are all going to have to live with this virus for quite a while. DM

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