12th May 2020
Press mocking of the Stay Alert message was widespread
Having steered the UK to the top of the European COVID-19 fatality league, the Tories have now chosen to drop the ‘Stay at Home’ message in order to exhort us all to ‘Stay Alert’. This is only in England. In Scotland, where First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon read about the change with her morning cornflakes, the message remains ‘Stay at Home’. In Wales the Labour administration had said it was not changing the message even before Boris Johnson’s ‘address to the nation’ was broadcast. The position is the same in Northern Ireland.
It is hard to credit that the Tories do not even have the capability of uniting a country as small as the so called United Kingdom around a single message. It is even more remarkable that in his address Johnson claimed to have consulted with the devolved administrations before embarking on the new approach. Quite apart from the fact that he obviously forgot to mention it to Nicola Sturgeon, he clearly did not get agreement for the new approach.
Johnson is bowing to pressure from the business community to ‘get the economy moving’ while continuing to use the fig leaf of being ‘led by the science’ as cover. The science is, as ever, conflicted on many points, not least because not enough is yet known about the behaviour of COVID-19 to make reliable predictions. What is does appear to be clear on though is that releasing lockdown too soon will result in a more rapid spread of the virus and lead to more deaths.
It also appears, from the evidence of South Korea and Germany, that rigorous systems for testing and contact tracing need to be in place, if there is to be any chance of controlling the spread of the virus. There is no evidence that this is the case in the UK, in spite of the dash to 100,000 tests a day in April, a level which the government fails to meet on a daily basis.
The message to workers to go back to work, but not use public transport, walking or a bike is recommended, is also in advance of clear guidance on how workplaces can be made safe and clear guidance on enforcement where employers are tempted to cut corners.
Allowing people to go outside and exercise more frequently is a welcome nod to physical and mental health issues. However, the freedom to drive to a place of exercise opens up the possibility of a rush to beaches and beauty spots in good weather and the possibility of infection being spread as a result. The timescale outlined by Johnson allows for non-essential retail being open from 1st June, sport being allowed behind closed doors and a return of some primary education. Some hospitality and leisure outlets may open from 4th July, with the caveat that this depends upon the virus not getting out of control.
The approach adopted in the UK outside of England does not align with the timescale outlined by Johnson, opening the prospect of an uneven easing of lockdown measures and, as a consequence an uneven approach to tackling the spread of the virus.
The Tories are following up Johnson’s statement with a flurry of ‘guidance’ in order to cover the gaps. The hope is that the economy can become active, while at the same time bringing down the rate of infection and cutting the rate of deaths. As with the government’s whole approach to the COVID-19 crisis, it is a gamble. As ever it is a gamble with the lives of the elderly, the poor and the most vulnerable.
One of the government’s so called five tests is to avoid a spike in the infection rate which will overwhelm the NHS. That means avoiding a spike in the winter months when the usual bouts of flu and norovirus infections, do their annual rounds. A spike in August or September would avoid this particular eventuality. It may be where the UK is heading. With over 32,000 deaths so far, it is hard to see how the UK will not be on course for 50,000 before the crisis is over.