We all know now that ending the UK’s lockdown, now in it its fifth week, is going to be a far more complex process, both politically and scientifically, than it was to implement. The decision to bring it into force was backed by both public will and the prevailing scientific consensus – whatever merits a partial or non-existent lockdown would have brought in terms of saving the economy or building up some level of herd immunity within the population, the cost in lives was always unthinkable.
Yet, as we appear to reach the peak of the outbreak, the government is facing its most difficult policy decision yet. Every day the lockdown continues, an estimated £2.4bn is wiped from the UK economy and with it all the benefits this money would have provided to long-term stability, health and the wellbeing of the nation. But lifting the lockdown any time soon, even partially, is fraught with risks of its own, with no level of built up immunity in the population and limited infrastructure in place for any sort of testing and tracing programme, we are limited in our ability to stop a second wave adding to the already unbearably high death-toll.
It’s a decision no government would ever want to make, and with our most important decision-maker still recovering at Chequers, it’s no surprise that cracks have begun to show this week between the cabinet’s lockdown hawks who want to see it lifted as soon as possible, and the lockdown doves who want to see a much more measured and phased approach.
The loudest calls for a quick end to the lockdown have come from the ever influential 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers, with some calling for the reopening of non-essential shops as early as the first week of May, and they are believed to be backed up in the cabinet by Michael Gove and Rishi Sunak. However the Government has long said it would be led by ‘the science’ and the scientists continue to be the biggest influence on the lockdown doves like Matt Hancock, maintaining that the only ultimate exit from all this is a vaccine or a cure.
The final say will have to be made by the Prime Minister though, regardless of the condition he’s in. It is simply too important for anyone else. And both the hawks and doves will have good reason to believe the PM will back them. You would expect traditional ebullient Boris to favour taking a few risks in the name of a return to normality, but after what he’s been through, it would be no surprise to see him favour a more cautious approach.
His real challenge will be to find a balance between the two camps, one that has been missing in the last couple of weeks. The public understand that things cannot go back to normal overnight, but the prospect of the nation being told at the next review that nothing will be changing for an additional three weeks also seems impossible. Time is now ticking for a plan that can save the economy from total collapse, while protecting the NHS from a second peak.