Life post-lockdown: are we finally seeing some light at the end of the tunnel?
“I’m sorry I’ve been away from my desk for much longer than I would have liked”, said Boris Johnson on his first day back at work since recovering from COVID-19.
In his statement outside 10 Downing Street, he thanked the British public, in a very British way, for displaying such British qualities like “grit and guts” to help the fight against the virus.
“This is the biggest single challenge this country has faced since the war,” he continued, cementing our British approach to the crisis.
Meanwhile, north of the border, Nicola Sturgeon had been busy outlining Scotland’s approach to the pandemic, announcing that we now have to find a “new normal” and live alongside the virus.
She called for a “grown-up conversation with the public” as we look beyond lockdown and enter our new normality where we have small “bubbles” of friends, certain businesses could reopen and children could return to school if classrooms were redesigned and pupils alternated weeks to ensure social distancing.
A small glimpse of the light at the end of the tunnel, but very much still shaded by the overarching need to be cautious and shield the most vulnerable members of society.
Sturgeon’s initial proposals offered a tentative look at how we could slowly – very slowly – begin to see some kind of post-lockdown life emerge. Not a normal life, but a “new normal”.
Sturgeon’s plans attracted widespread attention, with Scotland being the first of the UK nations to unveil its post-lockdown proposals. Indeed, the PDF of the document was accessed 170,000 times within five hours of being posted online.
Of course, it’s not the first time Sturgeon has been the first to make significant announcements ahead of Westminster, including announcing a ban on large social gatherings, closing schools and saying that the original three-week lockdown would be extended.
And the First Minister has pointed out that she would diverge from elsewhere in the UK when it came to lifting lockdown restrictions, if necessary.
But, speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, she stressed this decision was “not political in any way, shape or form”.
When asked by Marr if she had the power to close the border with England if she chose a different exit path from the one taken by Westminster, she said: “I don’t have the power to close borders but these are discussions we want to continue to have with the UK Government.
“On this question of will Scotland do things differently – not for the sake of it, we won’t. Only if the evidence and our judgment tells us that is necessary.
“Now that would mean if – and it is an if, I’m not saying we’re likely to get in to this territory – the UK Government took decisions that I thought were premature in terms of coming out of the lockdown, then clearly I would want to make sure Scotland did what I judged was best to protect the population.”
She said that, given the virus doesn’t respect borders, there had been a great deal of consistency in the UK to this point.
“But we all have to take decisions we judge to be right,” she said. “It’s not political in any way, shape or form.”
In the days before Johnson’s return to Downing Street, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said it would be weeks before ministers would even “think about” putting forward a comprehensive exit strategy, while Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty said some restrictions are likely to be in place for the “next calendar year”.
However, ministers have been coming under increasing pressure from senior Tory backbenchers and party donors, who are warning that the government needs to come out and give detailed plans soon about how it intends to ease lockdown restrictions.
All eyes were on Johnson as he returned to Downing Street. Was he going to come back to work and bow to the pressure, announcing more far-reaching lockdown exit plans than Sturgeon?
Judging by the first speech he gave after taking back the reins, it would appear his near-death experience has left the Prime Minister with a more cautious approach than he first had when dealing with the pandemic.
“Yes I can see the long-term consequences of lockdown as clearly as anyone, and so yes I entirely share your urgency, it’s the Government’s urgency,” he said.
“And yet we must also recognise the risk of a second spike, the risk of losing control of that virus and letting the reproduction rate go back over one.
“Because that would mean not only a new wave of death and disease but also an economic disaster, and we would be forced once again to slam on the brakes across the whole country, and the whole economy, and reimpose restrictions in such a way as to do more and lasting damage.
“And so I know it is tough and I want to get this economy moving as fast as I can, but I refuse to throw away all the effort and the sacrifice of the British people and to risk a second major outbreak and huge loss of life and the overwhelming of the NHS.
“And I ask you to contain your impatience because I believe we are coming now to the end of the first phase of this conflict.”
His views were backed by Prof Whitty on the same day as Johnson made his return.
He said: “This has got a very long way to run. Just thinking about the first peak, which due to the fantastic work the whole nation has done and the work of the NHS we have actually managed to go through - we have still got some way before it is falling right off - but there is a long, long way to go beyond that. And I think it’s a big mistake, in my view, just to consider just the first phase. We need to consider the epidemic as a whole.”
While at the time of writing, full details on how the UK intends to ease lockdown restrictions remain to be seen, hospitals in England have been told they can start planning to resume some of the routine treatments and services suspended due to the outbreak, with priorities including cancer care and mental health support.
Scotland is also currently awaiting more detail from Sturgeon on her lockdown exit plans following the publication of the framework, which at its heart, focuses on testing, tracing and isolation.
In announcing the Scottish Government’s paper, the FM said: “While today’s paper is still quite high level it is the start of a process. It sets out the objectives and the principles that will guide us, the different factors we will need to take into account, the framework in which we will take decisions and the preparations we need to make now.
“In the days and the weeks ahead, evidence, data and modelling will allow us to take firmer decisions. As that happens this paper will evolve into a detailed plan with metrics, actions, milestones and measurements attached to it.”
Writing in The Herald, Sturgeon added further clarity about her vision for a “new normal”.
She said: “It is important to be clear at the outset that the current lockdown remains vital – it is only because of it, that we are now seeing some progress against the virus. And these restrictions may need to continue in the current form beyond this three-week period.
“And when lockdown in its most severe form does start to be eased, it is likely that the process will be a very slow and gradual one, with only “baby steps” to start with. The virus is not going to magically disappear, so our challenge is to find a way to live alongside it – to continue to suppress it, while restoring some normality to our lives. That will not be easy.”
Whatever the full exit plans may be, it is clear that both the UK and Scottish governments have to work fast and have the kind of grown-up conversations with the public that have been promised, as signs show growing unrest over the curbs to daily life.
Photographs have already shown more people are on the UK’s roads, using London’s underground and are visiting parks and beaches.
Latest Police Scotland figures show officers have made 78 arrests and issued 1,637 fixed penalty notices in Scotland since 27 March, while police in England issued a total of 3,203 fines between March 27 and April 13.
As we enter week six of lockdown, it will become increasingly harder to convince people to stay at home, so if we want to build on the good work already done, the public needs some hope that the next six weeks will offer something different.