Tricky Balance: Too Rapid Lifting of UK Lockdown May Harm Brits, Too Slow Will Crash Economy - Prof

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While continental Europe is signalling its willingness to ease the COVID-related lockdown, the UK government has yet to unveil details on how it plans to bring the country back on track amid the coronavirus-driven recession. British academic Alistair Jones has explained why No 10 is in a tricky situation now.

The UK coronavirus lockdown can be eased next month as the transmission rate of the infection is now within a manageable range, scientific advisers have told British ministers, as cited by The Telegraph.

Earlier, senior Tories, including former ministers, urged the British government to provide details on how the nation-wide lockdown which was imposed on the evening of Monday 23 March would be lifted. The influential conservatives deem that the lock down has gone too far, while April polls revealed that although Brits show support for the government's quarantine measures, they have become increasingly concerned about the economy is being affected by the coronavirus-related recession.

The situation is pretty risky, as a premature easing of the lockdown may further exacerbate the problem, while having it in place too long would undermine the economy, says Alistair Jones, associate professor at De Montfort University, England. According to the professor, the return to normal should be gradual, slow-paced and well-thought-out.

Sputnik: In your view, when will this plan be revealed and what would it look like? What would be the first steps to ease restrictions?

Alistair Jones: The problem that the government have got is that nobody knows the best time to initiate the lockdown. The problem that they have is if they lift the lockdown too soon, there’s a very good chance of the second wave of the virus. So it’s getting that balance right. And you’ve got those such as Prime Minister Boris Johnson, although he is out of circulation somewhat because of his ill health, who are erring towards caution. But you’ve got those such as Rishi Sunak, who is the chancellor, who are looking at the economic situation and are seeing very clearly the UK is going to have the largest economic crash ever. And therefore they are worried that if that crash is too deep, the UK economy could be harmed for not just years but potentially much, much longer than that.

So it’s striking that balance right. What they are looking and doing is gradually phasing in a lockdown but even then, the question is when to start. So, by phasing out, for example, schools, when should the children go back to school? That’s quite a tricky one, because you've got all the parents; one of whom could have coronavirus and could infect the child, infect the children and infect all their families. The virus spreads very easily. So, it’s a hugely difficult balancing act, and whatever the government does they are going to lose, they are going to be wrong. It's going to be either be too soon and we’ll have a second wave, or it’ll be too late and the economy suffers. It’s one of those no-win situations.

So, what they are going to be looking at is the number of deaths that we’re getting in hospitals but also in the wider community, which hasn’t been counted properly, the number of infections. As soon as they are down to manageable levels and can be seen to be - I'm not going to say 'under control' but getting that way, so the spread is being reduced, then they could start the beginning of the end of the lockdown. But one of the chief health advisors to the government has said that social distancing, for example, is likely to stay in place until next year, at least. So, I think as a university lecturer, If we've got social distancing, I can’t give a lecture to 100 students. The effect of that will be that the universities are going to stay closed, many large schools will have to stay closed. So we are going to have to think of alternative ways of actually conducting academia, for example, if there’s this gradual releasing. If we look at other areas, such as restaurants or pubs, the social environment, that is likely to spread the coronavirus very quickly, so they are going to be opened up last of all. It’s going to be a gradual, slow-paced thing; but as to when to start it, it’s too difficult to guess.

Sputnik: There was an opinion that all this easing of the lockdown cannot be done without Boris Johnson; but he is not back at work yet. Can the government somehow act without the Prime Minister, because he isn't back at work, and decide on the future of the lockdown and all these measures?

Alistair Jones: One of the interesting things about the UK is that we have a parliamentary government, as opposed to a prime ministerial government or a presidential government. So parliament makes the decisions. Parliament is guided not by the Prime Minister but by the Cabinet. So, what we tend to have is the Cabinet working towards an agreement. In something so profound as loosening the lockdown, the prime ministerial input as a guide is hugely important; but if it needs to be taken, it can be taken without him.

So we will have what we call the 'big beasts' of the Cabinet: the Home Secretary, the Foreign Secretary, the Justice Secretary and one or two others, who will lead the discussion. The problem is, from what we are getting via social media, is that that's where the divisions are. So Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and one of the most important people in the Cabinet, wants to reduce the lockdown sooner. Matthew Hancock, the Health Secretary, wants to reduce it later because he sees the potential consequences. So we’ve got this polarisation, therefore having a prime ministerial steer would be beneficial. But if things look to be getting better very quickly, the decision can be taken without Boris Johnson; he is not the be-all and end-all. Others can make the decision, he is mainly the first minister, constitutionally speaking.

Sputnik: He was also heavily criticized for his response to the coronavirus in the first place; there was an recent op-ed in the Guardian titled “Boris Johnson is the wrong man in the wrong job at the wrong time”. To what extent would you agree with this title and how would you assess his actions in the first place?

Alistair Jones: First of all, if you look at the initial government response, if we go all the way back to 2016, the NHS ran a simulation where they looked at how to deal with the flu pandemic; Operation Cygnus, I think it was called. And what they found then was that we didn’t have enough ventilators, we didn’t have enough PPE and we needed to get more. Come this coronavirus, it transpires, they've done nothing. So the starting point is that they ran the simulation where they realised what was lacking, they did nothing about it, and we’re lacking in those areas.

Since that point in time if we carry forward to where the coronavirus first came out in China, Britain was very slow to react, saying 'it’s not going to come here, it’s the Chinese problem'. Even when it hit Italy very badly, the UK government was [thinking] “we’ve got Brexit, we’re leaving, so it’s not for us”. There’s a huge problem there. Since that point in time, the government was very slow. They started testing and they were testing all the way forward; and they were always saying they were guided by the scientific evidence. But they’ve never produced any evidence.

So, what we’re seeing now is a situation where they are almost blaming the scientific evidence, saying we couldn’t do that because the scientific evidence said we didn't need to. So they're looking for a scapegoat. And that's gone very badly. And Boris Johnson was going round and still shaking people’s hands when the advice was not to do so - that ended up being a bad decision.  Now, the Guardian piece that you mentioned about Boris Johnson being the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time, Boris Johnson is very much a performer, big scene, big presence; and in that he is brilliant. But when we come down to small matters of detail, the problem we’ve got is that he can’t be bothered. And he has a track record of this when he was the Mayor of London.

So we knew that when he was saying 'let’s get Brexit done', he was brilliant. He sold that to the population in the general election. Let's be very clear - it was a masterstroke and it was brilliantly performed. But what you need in a crisis like this is someone who is phenomenally good with the detail and who can think about strategic planning, and Boris Johnson is not that person. He wants to be able to be that big, friendly, almost like an anchor who can put an arm around you and consort you and cheer you up and make you feel good about yourself; and he is very good at doing that. But the problem is that that is not what is needed at this time. Before he became ill with the coronavirus, when he was involved in the press conferences and giving the daily press briefings, he just didn’t seem to have a grasp of the severity of the problem; and it didn’t come across in the way that he talked or in his actions; I wouldn't say blaze, but it was getting a little bit that way. So, when we get to a situation maybe in 6 months’ time or a year’s time when we’re looking back on all of this and potentially political heads roll, his maybe one of those that roll.

We have already seen in the UK media a split in the media that backs the Conservative Party between those that like Boris and those who say that he is the wrong person. Let’s be clear, the Guardian is the centre-left paper, it is not in support of the Tories; but the point they are making is being echoed in other newspapers that maybe Boris wasn't the right person for the job. Yes, maybe he was the right person to to get the deal done with Brexit, which is going to be taking place at the end of this year when the transition period is over and in that he's been great. But again, we've got a problem with detail and actually doing the negotiations, that’s not going very well; but it’s in the legislation that we are leaving on the 31st and it’s very clear. So, big sweeping gestures are great, the micromanagement is needed for something like this. The Guardian’s perspective is reasonably accurate.
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