LONDON — Dont expect Britain to lift the lockdown any time soon.
A spokesman for Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed to journalists on Wednesday that, with the disease seemingly under control in the U.K., the next mission is avoiding a second wave that could engulf the National Health Service.
Deaths from the virus in U.K. hospitals appear to have stabilized, according to regular figures released by the Department of Health, while new cases and admissions to intensive care have also begun to flatline.
“The big concern is a second peak,” the spokesman said. “That is what ultimately will do the most damage to health and the economy. If you move too quickly then the virus could begin to spread exponentially again.”
It suggests the U.K., which started its coronavirus journey as one of the more bullish nations — refusing to impose a full lockdown after other countries had done so — could become one of the more cautious in Europe, with other nations already looking to begin easing restrictions.
Any decision means balancing the immediate threat to public health from the virus against the long-term impact of lockdown on the economy.
Reports over the weekend suggested a plan to pull the country out of suppression mode was in the works, but Johnson, who met his stand-in Dominic Raab and aides on Friday after being discharged from hospital following his bout with the virus, has pushed for a more cautious approach.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak signaled similar caution at the daily Downing Street press briefing Monday. “The most important [rule] is … that we cant have the risk of a second peak,” he said. “That would not only be bad for health outcomes, it would also be bad for the economy.”
The focus has become “how you modify measures when the time is right,” one Downing Street insider told POLITICO. “Some things may be rigid, some things may loosen. Well be able to make those decisions at the right points, but that is not going to be any time in the next few weeks.”
Health experts advising the government agree.
Peter Openshaw, a professor of experimental medicine at Imperial College London, and an adviser to the government, said ending lockdown measures too soon could see a second flare-up of cases. “We mustnt lose the ground that we have made by easing off too early,” he said. Instead, Openshaw, who sits on the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group, advocates a softly softly approach.
He expects phased tweaks to the lockdown that are least likely to spark a rebound in case numbers, and if those work, further changes that offer the greatest economic benefit to the country with the lowest risk of a virus resurgence. But he was reluctant to spell out what those might be.
Downing Street is also keeping tight-lipped. Modifications to the current lockdown could include “relaxing measures in some areas while strengthening measures in other areas,” the Downing Street spokesman said. “But in terms of what that might involve, we will be guided by the science.”
Right side of public opinion
Any decision means balancing the immediate threat to public health from the virus against the long-term impact of lockdown on the economy, including the potential knock-on loss of life. But if the immediate threat of a second wave is the priority, Downing Street can be safe in the knowledge that the public has its back.
Polls suggest overwhelming support for the lockdown measures, with one YouGov survey last week showing 91 percent backed the extension of the restrictions. James Johnson, co-founder at research firm J.L. Partners who used to run polling in Downing Street, said “fear of the virus” was driving public support.
It is the British commitment to the NHS and the “perceived risk to peoples personal health, but more so to their familys health or people around them,” that is driving public sentiment, he said.
The public is tuned into the economic risks, Johnson added, but the health element “is trumping that in peoples minds.” One J.L. Partners poll found 74 percent of the population backed limiting the spread of the disease even if it meant a major recession or depression, including the closure of many businesses or the loss of many jobs. The picture is similar around the world.
“As long as lockdown [is] a choice between the virus spreading and lives being lost and the economy being protected … the public is going for the health side of the argument,” he said.
Internal Downing Street polling suggests the same. “There is a Fleet Street desire for us to lay out exit strategies, but it is not where the public are,” one government insider said. “The public are seeing death numbers and thinking weve got to do everything we can to stop the spread of the virus.”
Officials believe that as long as the case for extension is sufficiently made, with data to back it up, then public support will continue. The argument that a second peak would lead to greater health and economic damage is expected to lock in continued backing for the measures.
But Johnson noted that public support can never be taken for granted. If the economic impact of the lockdown begins to bite, with mass unemployment and a clear impact on excess deaths, the picture could look very different in a short space of time.
“There is no guarantee the public is not going to change its mind quickly on this,” Johnson said.
That economic impact could be just around the corner.
Treasury watchdog the Office for Budget Responsibility said a three-month lockdown followed by three months of partial restrictions could cause the economy to shrink by 35 percent in the quarter to June, after 0.2 percent of growth in the first three months of 2020. But it said there would be a quick bounce back to normality.
Numerous economists accused the OBR of painting too optimistic a picture. Paul Read More – Source