The Sun reports that the Prime Minister is aiming to get the UK back to work by Tuesday May 26, the day after the Whitsun bank holiday, while the Telegraph says schools will start to reopen on June 1.
This long slow road back towards normality means at least another three weeks of lockdown and puts the UK behind much of the rest of the world in getting these crippling restrictions lifted.
Of the 44 European nations which imposed lockdowns, 21 have already begun lifting them, according to the World Health Organisation. The Czech Republic began as early as April 9 with Denmark reopening schools on April 13 and Germany, Norway and Poland starting to ease on April 20.
All are yet to see anything of the dreaded second wave.
Vietnam began easing lockdown on April 22, with restaurants and other businesses now open, while other South East Asian countries such as South Korea and Taiwan never imposed a formal lockdown but instead ran strict (and successful) containment and border control strategies.
The absence of resurgence in infections as lockdowns lift may surprise some, but not regular readers of this site, who know that there is no proof that lockdowns achieve what they are meant to, but do cause very considerable collateral harm, yet to be totally computed. The evidence that infections in the UK, as elsewhere, had already peaked and begun falling before lockdown began is further supported by a study which compares the trajectory of the epidemic before and after the lockdown in Italy, France, Spain and the UK. It finds ‘no evidence of any discontinuity in the growth rate, doubling time, and reproduction number trends’. In other words, lockdowns did nothing at all to help. However the evidence that they do a lot of harm is mounting, and it is not just economic.
The recent spike in extra mortality in the UK up to April 17 includes 7,486 deaths not attributed to Covid-19. Some have suggested these must be unidentified Covid-19 deaths, but Hector Drummond in the Critic has looked at them in more detail and found that, unlike Covid-19 deaths, which invariably split 60:40 male-female, they split 50:50. This suggests they may not be linked to Covid-19 at all and hence are a direct result of the lockdown. Another analysis by statistician William Briggs also points to some evidence of a spike in non-Covid-19 deaths.
If it is not lockdowns that have been effective, what accounts for the declining death rate? One possibility is that the lighter, pre-lockdown social distancing measures have been sufficient to bring the epidemic under control. There remains a question therefore about what will happen when these lighter measures are lifted as well, particularly in countries that have not yet been hit hard, either because they locked down early or because they ran a successful containment strategy. How strictly will they have to control their borders, and for how long, and what impact will this have on tourism and business? The degree of collective immunity that has developed (or pre-exists) in populations, and hence how susceptible they remain, is a large unknown right now. Until there are large-scale antibody tests we will not know how many people were entirely asymptomatic or experienced non-severe symptoms.
It is very unlikely to be as bad as Professor Neil Ferguson and his team at Imperial College London predicted. Their model, which has done so much to guide UK government policy, has now been applied to Sweden, where it predicted 40,000 dead by May 1 if the country followed the mitigation strategy it has in fact taken (the one the UK abandoned in light of the Imperial model’s catastrophic projections). Sweden’s actual number of deaths by that date is around 2,500. Ferguson’s model has therefore overestimated deaths in Sweden so far by 1,600 per cent. In any sane world this would discredit it completely. But Neil Ferguson appears to be impervious to being discredited no matter how many huge overestimates his models predict.
In the end, the government needs to recognise that we can’t hide forever from a virus that is not so much deadlier than flu and that has not overwhelmed our health service, despite its being woefully and negligently under-prepared for such an outbreak, including the most fundamental protections for health care staff. We need to follow other nations in getting life back to normal as quickly as possible, while being ready with a robust containment strategy (screening, testing, tracing and quarantine) to combat any possible future outbreak.