The Observer view on the premature relaxation of the lockdown

Throughout this pandemic, Boris Johnson has claimed to have been “following the science”. By parroting this epistemological nonsense, ministers are encouraging us to believe that they are only doing what the scientists tell them. It is but a short step from there to blaming the government’s scientific advisers for the UK’s terrible death toll. This lends added significance to the roll call of prominent scientists – including some senior members of the government’s scientific advisory committee for emergencies (Sage) – who have this weekend publicly made clear their concerns that the government is relaxing the lockdown in England too early.

The decision about when and how to relax the lockdown is political. It can only ever be informed, not dictated, by the uncertain science, and must also weigh the risks and costs imposed by the lockdown itself. This is why it is critical that politicians are unfailingly transparent about the basis on which they are making their decisions – not just the scientific advice, but the other assumptions and value judgments that are informing their decisions.

We have seen no such transparency from Johnson about his decision to relax social distancing restrictions from tomorrow, when many schools will be reopening, many people will be returning to work, and groups of families and friends will be able to gather outdoors for the first time in weeks. The announcement came after the most tumultuous week for the government yet, during which Johnson expended every last shred of his political capital on saving his adviser Dominic Cummings after he was revealed to have broken the government’s lockdown guidance several times. There was no publication of the scientific advice, no openness about how the various risks have been traded off against each other, no explanation as to why the government thinks it is safe to make so many changes simultaneously rather than adopt a more cautious approach. It leaves the impression of a hapless prime minister so dependent on his adviser that he is not only willing to trash the integrity of the government’s public health messaging, but to rush forwards a relaxation of the lockdown before the country is ready in order to distract from his political tribulations.

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The lockdown has imposed immense and unequal costs on society: children are being abused at home without the safety net of going to school; the attainment gap between children from poor and more affluent backgrounds is widening; grandparents have missed out on seeing their new grandchildren; people who have not been eligible for government financial support have suffered intense economic hardship. But the right approach is to gradually and cautiously reopen society step by step, only once infection rates have further dwindled, and there are proper systems in place to track and manage local outbreaks in order to minimise the risk of a second wave of infections. We believe that, science permitting, the right prioritisation would have been schools, then family contact, and only then the economy; the government can far more easily alleviate economic hardship than the educational, social and emotional hardships of lockdown.

Instead, the government has thrown caution to the wind by announcing a hotchpotch of measures while the estimated reproduction rate or R number of the virus remains dangerously close to one, the value above which we will again see exponential growth in infections, and the Joint Biosecurity Centre has maintained the threat level at “high”. As Professor John Edmunds of Sage has pointed out, if R were to reach one, that would imply a steady rate of 8,000 new infections a day, or 80 deaths a day assuming a fatality rate of 1%: 2,400 deaths a month until a vaccine or more effective treatments are developed. If R goes above one, the death toll could be far worse.

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Sage has estimated that the limited reopening of primary schools alone could increase R by 0.2; yet this is only one of a number of measures being introduced from tomorrow. The rushed and botched launch of the test, track and trace scheme has not disguised the fact that it will not be fully operational until the end of June; and the government has wasted weeks devising and putting into operation a system reliant on outsourcing contact tracing to low-paid call centre handlers without involving local councils and their considerable expertise in contact tracing. We simply do not have the systems in place to manage local outbreaks; by the time death rates start rising again, the 21-day average lag between infection and death means it will be too late.

Moreover, in protecting Cummings, Johnson has made a conscious decision to rubbish the integrity of the government’s public health message at a time that could not be more sensitive. Just as members of the public are being asked to self-isolate for 14 days if they develop symptoms or are contacted by a tracer, as society opens up around them they are hearing ministers fanning out across the airwaves to defend an adviser who repeatedly flouted the rules. The sense of public anger that has been generated by this breathtaking level of hypocrisy is righteous and palpable. Meanwhile, the government continues to brief further potential relaxations of the lockdown, such as a reopening of pubs, to favoured parts of the press in order to generate good news headlines.

We simply cannot, in good faith, understand why the government appears prepared to take such reckless risks with the health of the nation. In the absence of a full explanation from the prime minister he leaves himself wide open to the charge that he is risking people’s lives in his struggle to manage a political crisis. That this no longer appears a far-fetched possibility is frightening and disturbing. If this does indeed turn out to be the case, and people lose their lives as a consequence, the country will never forgive him.

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