Across the world, countries are gradually setting out their plans for a return to greater normality following the coronavirus lockdowns. The UK, slow to act earlier this year, is behind most other countries in reducing the spread of the virus, and our “phased exit plan” is also therefore running behind that of other countries. This is both necessary and potentially beneficial – we can see how other countries act, and what this does to the prevalence of the virus. Sadly, there is at this stage still an awful lot that we don’t know about this virus and how it spreads.
The British population has reacted to the lockdown by generally adhering to the government’s rules – indeed, shocked by the brutality of the disease and the Prime Minister’s own near death experience, British people seem less desperate to return swiftly to normality than in many other countries. But our government will be deeply concerned about the short and long term economic and social impacts of a prolonged lockdown, and it will want to see a phased return to greater normality as soon as this can safely be delivered. In the UK, we seem to be going through four phases of virus response – first denial, then severe lockdown, soon a phased exit plan, and then (eventually) a return to normality once a safe vaccine has been found and can be delivered.
Boris Johnson’s government has extended the current lockdown to 7th May, but around this time we are likely to hear about the detail of the government’s plan for phased exit – this will likely be the longest and trickiest phase of dealing with the virus. Indeed, it is almost certainly the most challenging example of science based government policy-making in the history of the British state. As with other countries, extending the lockdown for too long will undermine and scar the economy, increase educational inequality, and increase mental health and non-virus health problems. But a too-rapid exit route will cause the virus to quickly re-assert itself with the all-important “R” (reproduction) rate moving back above 1. The latter could force further economic lockdowns over a sustained period – wreaking further severe economic damage and driving stock valuations to new lows.
As other countries set out the exit routes from their lockdowns, we can see certain common features – as might be expected. Each country is asking itself how much “normality” can return while maintaining social distancing, and protection of vulnerable groups. But not all countries are delivering the same policy solutions. One of the areas of most contrast is education. Some countries are allowing rapid re-opening of schools, to help parents return to work and to avoid learning loss. Others are taking a much more cautious approach.
Re-opening of education is one of the trickiest issues facing the UK government. Superficially, re-opening schools seems an obvious early step to take – young people appear less vulnerable to the virus, while many parents need schools to restart if they are to get back to work. But school re-opening is a tough call. Not only does it send out a powerful “back to normal” message that could undermine social distancing, but it means that other groups – teachers, support staff, parents dropping off their children – are likely to come into much more contact. And if children don’t appear to be particularly vulnerable to the virus themselves, we don’t yet know for sure how much they may spread the virus to family members and friends.
The government has yet to decide upon a firm strategy for schools but the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson has outlined that it will be done in a “phased manner” and there will be around three weeks’ notice of re-opening to allow head teachers time to prepare their institutions for a “new normal”. This implies that the earliest date for school re-opening is after half term ends, on 1st June. At present, the government seems minded to allow year groups 10 and 12 to return first in secondary schools. These are the year groups taking GCSEs and A Levels next year. There could also be a limited return for younger children in primary schools – to help parents return to work. But if all primary aged children return at once, how would social distancing be maintained? This is an immensely difficult challenge, with no easy solution.
In short, a phased return to school from 1st June seems likely, but this may not include all year groups and there has been a strong indication that many schools will not return to normal until after the summer holidays.
If schools aren’t going to be in the vanguard of the exit plan, what might be? Some countries are deciding to return to normality through a geographically differentiated strategy – with high risk areas taking longer to transition out of lockdown. The UK government appears to have rejected this approach – though there is some scope for the devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to make slightly different plans.
The most obvious first step for the UK as a whole would appear to be to allow businesses to re-open, based on their capacity to socially distance and their lack of ability to operate from the home environment. This could happen as early as mid-May, though restaurants, shopping centres, pubs, and other such businesses might have to wait a lot longer. If there is going to be a widespread re-opening of business, the government will want to be able to “test, track and trace” to as large an extent as possible. Without such an approach, the decline in social distancing could easily cause a surge in virus prevalence. The government will also expect social distancing to be implemented in the workplace – which might mean businesses re-opening with a reduced workforce or with other constraints on normal working. Finally, not least in major population centres, some measures to protect those using public transport seem necessary – and this could involve the compulsory wearing of face masks.
Also in this first stage of the exit we could see a softening of rules around social distancing – allowing people to regularly meet with a wider group of friends and relatives. But older and more vulnerable people will need to maintain social distancing, and it seems very unlikely that larger public gatherings or sporting events attended by spectators would be allowed.
If this is what phase one looks like, phase two could begin in early June with the limited re-opening of schools. Presumably, this would be accompanied by stronger signals that people are expected to return to work, except in the limited number of sectors where social distancing would be very difficult. At this stage, the government will need to consider the future of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme – due presently to cease at the end of June. This will be a very tough decision – extend the scheme too far, and the cost is immense. But bring the scheme to an end, and the government will take the blame for mass redundancies, not least in sectors that are still locked down. Make the scheme more flexible, and the cost may rise further and the withdrawal process may become more politically tricky. Perhaps the most sensible thing would be to extend the scheme beyond June, but only for sectors where government rules prevent a return to normality – restaurants, pubs, airlines, could fall into this category.
What else? Well, by now we are likely to be dealing with a global situation where some countries are seeing great success in controlling the virus, while others are not. A highly open country, such as the UK, with a massive tourist industry (not least in London) faces a huge risk of re-importing the virus, and wrecking its own recovery. So tighter control of border entry maybe necessary – with routine screening of passengers at entry points, not least from affected countries.
Phase three of a return to normality would likely be implemented in the Autumn – re-opening of all businesses, and full re-opening of schools in September. Ideally, older and vulnerable people would then be able to mix more.
But the appropriate word is “ideally”. All of these carefully laid out plans could be wrecked by a new surge in the virus, which – as we have already seen – is both deadly and capable of spreading with frightening speed.
One reason why the UK government should not feel rushed to implement its plans, is that it has the opportunity to see what is now going to happen in the countries where re-opening is taking place. Many senior health advisers are clearly worried about further significant pandemic peaks – as panicked governments and bored populations rush to return to normality. The best laid out “phased exit plans” may be seriously knocked off course by the immense challenge of managing populations back to “normality” without allowing the virus to spread again.
It would be an astonishing public policy achievement if the world could escape from this with just one pandemic peak. There must be a significant risk (perhaps more than 50%) of further significant virus outbreaks (and associated toughening of control measures) before at some stage, perhaps in mid-2021, the scientific community rides to our rescue with the vaccine we need to safely return to true normality.