Should we be rushing to get together, or should we question the wisdom of the advice we’re being given? Even before the Government’s moral authority was undermined by an unthinking senior-adviser, the messaging around the easing of the lockdown was always going to be complicated, full of ambiguities and contradictions, and open to huge amounts of individual interpretation. And the degree to which individuals feel they can legally and morally stretch the rules has now been significantly increased. It will, we understand, be about a month before accurate scientific information is available to determine the full extent of any spike created by the easement. So for the next few weeks things may remain stable, they may get safer, or they may become riskier. We won’t know. Nor can we be sure whether people are any longer taking notice of the safety advice being issued.
On the surface, the Government’s relaxation of the restrictions imposed on the 2.2 million ‘severely vulnerable’ shielded individuals is a welcome development. Particularly for those shielding alone the freedom to meet one other person, from a different household while also social distancing, will be a great relief and will do something to reduce the sense of acute isolation that many will have been feeling. But beyond the trailed announcement there seems to be an absence as yet of any scientific basis for this relaxation. In fact the M.S. Society has called for the scientific advice behind this decision to be published. Essentially the risks for vulnerable individuals do not appear changed much, and probably won’t until a vaccine is developed. The number of new infections is still running at 15,672* in the week of writing and, as all the other lockdown easing measures begin to be taken up by the public, the government is clearly braced for an increase rather than a decrease. The picture is also complicated for the 8 to 9 million people over 70. The prime minister was pleased to pronounce that families would at last be able to get back together and grand-parents could once again spend time with their grandchildren. But the reality is that, if those grandparents are over 70, the Covid-19 virus has not all of a sudden become any less risky should they catch it. In fact for this group there is still a significant risk of fatal complications if they become infected. And more generally, even for the young and fit, the disease has become no less nasty or unpredictable and in some cases untreatable.
To get a better sense of the risks still implicit in a friendly little get-together in the back garden, we need look no further than some of the reams of expert advice being provided for anyone planning to hold such a gathering . . . If it is necessary to enter the house to get to the garden, do so without touching anything; maintain two meter social distance at all times (for six people: 48 sq m required in total to do it safely) . . . avoid sharing cutlery . . . wear a mask . . . wash your hands as you enter and every 45 minutes . . . preferably only meet for 60 minutes or so . . . and so on – with toilet breaks conducted as major exercises in clinical decontamination. All of which reinforces the fact that these permitted get-togethers are in reality still full of risk, even for the young and healthy, and may be very hard to achieve in safety.
Surely, at the heart of the lock-down relaxation there is a fundamental anomaly. For the country as a whole, the easing makes sense. People’s sense of isolation, and loss of patience with the restrictions, will be eased. They will be able to get back together with friends and family. They will be able to feel that normal life is returning. Getting back into shops will stimulate the economy . . . etc. And the Government calculates that the NHS now has the capacity to handle the severe illnesses that result from any spike in infections created by the easing. The logic on a Downing Street adviser’s flip-chart probably goes a bit like this: The public are getting used to lots of people getting the virus and quite a few people dying. So if the easing generates new cases, and quite a few new deaths, people may not be too worried, and the news can be nuanced anyway. On the upside, the Government will be seen to be ‘in control’ and taking the initiative in getting the country back on its feet, rather that losing control and seeing people take things into their own hands due to evaporation of confidence in Government restrictions and the recent catastrophic haemorrhaging of trust in Government leadership.
Perhaps, ironically, the conclusion we should draw from the recent desultory tale of political self-immolation is that we should all be more prepared to ‘follow our instinct’ and, where appropriate, ignore the advice of the government and its advisers. Maybe, before taking up an invitation from the PM to enjoy a jolly good get together with friends and relations in the back garden, we might do well to think through the real risks that still exist from a far-from-tamed and all too deadly virus that killed 10,866* people within the UK, in the last month alone.
* Stats from ‘uk deaths from coronavirus’ google data 1/5/2020 to 30/5/2020.