At last the Government has decided to start the process of unlocking the economy. The announcement by Boris Johnson on Tuesday was good news for us all.
Critically, there has been a change in messaging around the two-metre social-distancing rule. It has been apparent for some time that this rule was out of place if we wanted to get the economy moving. If it had been maintained, restaurants and pubs would not have been able to reopen, because the cost would have outweighed the return. As one of the largest employers in the UK, their role in easing lockdown is vital. The two-metre rule has also affected the capabilities of schools and hospitals to function properly.
I have for some weeks been calling on ministers to put forward their strategic plan and end the requirement to remain two metres apart. The evidence has been there for some time that, while the calculated risk of reducing the distance is very small, the rewards are enormous.
Though I welcome the change, I was concerned that the process now looks a bit like grandma’s footsteps, with the scientists acting as grandma. Note how Sir Patrick Vallance, the Chief Scientific Adviser, left Tuesday’s press conference in no doubt that he remained unconvinced: it must be remembered that scientists disagree among themselves constantly about the data.
The problem is that, since the lockdown, the messaging has been so threatening that the public have in many cases reached the conclusion that everyone is at equal risk from Covid-19. While I can understand the need for that as we locked down, the result is that people seem to have lost their natural sense of the balance of risks that govern our lives. The latest figures show that only some 5 to 10 per cent have died without any co-morbidities. We know that this is a disease that attacks the elderly and those weakened by other conditions, such as heart disease.
Interestingly, according to Professor David Spiegelhalter, a statistician at the University of Cambridge, Britons under the age of 50 are more likely to die from an accident or injury, under-40s are more likely to die in a car accident and under-25s are more likely to die from flu or pneumonia, than from coronavirus. Since the lockdown, people’s ability to balance risk and reward has practically disappeared, as fear of the virus has gripped the nation. For example, I see people are now encouraged to get on their bikes to avoid public transport, but few realise that up to age 44 you are more likely to die from a cycling fatality than from Covid.
The one-metre-plus rule has caused some confusion. Cinemas can open but not theatres, museums and galleries but not exhibition or conference centres, funfairs and theme parks but not swimming pools, and hairdressers but not nail bars or tanning salons. Finally, no cricket. Why does the Government see cricket balls as super spreaders but not tennis balls?
It is vital that we get the social-distancing measure to one metre and the economy moving, or more than just the economy suffers; a static economy risks more deaths.
People remain concerned about going to hospital. Oncology Central calculates that up to 60,000 cancer patients could die unnecessarily. Some hospitals report that only 57 per cent of beds are occupied.
There is still too much misunderstanding of the risk. After all, teachers have caused parents to worry about their children in school when we know young children are more likely to be struck by lightning than die from Covid-19.
That’s why, after the cautious start, the Government now needs to make the case in a more positive tone with a simpler message: it must sell the reality that unlocking is vital and that the balance of risk and reward clearly favours the resumption of economic and social activity. Life must get back to as near to normal as possible if we are to avoid terrible consequences.