COVID-19: Loosening the lockdown

On 28 May 2020, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that there would be a further loosening of the lockdown, as he introduced phase 2 of the government’s exit strategy. This releases the UK into what both government officials and media outlets have dubbed the “new normal”.

As of Monday 1 June, a new set of amendments to the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) regulations were enacted. Meanwhile, the NPCC and the College of Policing published updated instructions on how they would continue to police the pandemic.

However, some scientists have criticised the government’s actions. They argue that the loosening of the lockdown is too premature, and purely a “political decision”. As a result, some have warned of a potential second wave.

Amended regulations and updated police instructions

As of 1 June, in accordance with The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) (Amendment) (No. 3) Regulations 2020 the scope of freedoms permitted by law has been expanded significantly. However, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland currently have different legal restrictions in force.

For those living in England and Wales, Regulation 6 has changed. Now the amendment outlines that a “reasonable excuse” is no longer required if an individual wishes to leave their house and spend time outside. In association with this, the amendment permits the congregation of up to six people in a variety of settings, including gardens.

That being said, it is advised that individuals stagger these meetings. Prime Minister Boris Johnson explained the reasoning behind this as: “So that we can avoid the risk of quick transmission from lots of different families and continue to control the virus”.

Instead Regulation 6 now applies to overnight stays, wherein an individual must have a “reasonable excuse” to stay at someone else’s house overnight.

However, there are a few exceptions to this rule. This includes, but not limited to:

  • Elite athletes
  • Children whose parents are separated
  • Those who must due to their work commitments
  • Those who require medical assistance
  • Those who are in the process of moving house

Further to this, the government has also now authorised the reopening of a number of shops. While before 1 June only “essential shops” were allowed to remain open and functional, now outdoor markets and car showrooms are allowed to open for customers.

Additionally, as outlined in the government’s roadmap out of lockdown, namely “Our plan to rebuild,” this will be followed by the re-opening of some high street shops that fall into the non-essential category.

Meanwhile, some children have also returned to school as per the guidance announced by the  Prime Minister on 24 May. This new legislation permits the return of nursery children, reception, Year 1 and Year 6. .

On top of these measures, the NPCC and the College of Policing have released guidance for English police forces informing them on how to enforce the new measures. This guidance outlines that police are still allowed to direct, remove or use force against those who are congregating in numbers above six in public spaces. However, if an individual breaks the rules on overnight stays, the police can only direct an individual to return home, but cannot remove the individual or use force.

Reflecting on the amendments made to the Act, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the lifting had permitted the government to “flip the basis of the law back to specifically outlining things that you cannot do, as opposed to saying you can’t do anything unless it’s specifically provided for”.

At the daily COVID-19 briefing at Downing Street, he added: “I’m very glad we’ve been able to change the basis of the law – and get away from what was essentially the most authoritarian part of the system”.

Government assures safety

In an effort to assure the country that the new measures are “absolutely safe,” Chancellor Rishi Sunak recently took to the streets to an outdoor market in London. On his outing, captured on camera, he “[grabbed] [his] lunch,” and commented that the reopening of outdoor markets was a “really important first step”.

Reflecting on what the new measures mean for the country he added: “I hope in the coming days and weeks many more people will do the same and slowly we’re going to get our lives back to normal”.

At the same time, Professor Chris Whitty, the UK government’s Chief Medical Adviser has warned that in order to ensure this safety is maintained, people must still comply with the strict hygiene and social distancing guidance.

Clarifying what this means, he said: “If someone was to go into the loo because they had to do that, it’s absolutely critical that they wipe everything down, wash their hands all the way through. If you were to do something like a barbecue, remember that passing things from one person to another, if you haven’t washed your hands, you can pass the virus that way”.

Scientists warn of second wave

Despite the Chancellor stating that changes to the lockdown will not be an “overnight, big-bang thing,” scientists have expressed concern that the government is lifting the lockdown too quickly.

Commenting on the decision to significantly lift the lockdown measures, Sage member Professor Calum Semple, called the move a “brave” political decision, but warned that high

levels of transmission have not disappeared.

He added: “Essentially we’re lifting the lid on a boiling pan and it’s just going to bubble over,” he said. “We need to get it down to simmer before we take the lift off, and it’s too early”. Scotland’s former Chief Medical Officer agreed arguing that it is “far too early” to send school children back to school.

Meanwhile, speaking to Radio 4’s Today programme Dr Jeanelle de Gruchy, President of the ADPH, told Radio 4’s Today programme, stressed the need for balance: “A lot of people including local directors of public health across the country are increasingly concerned that the government is misjudging this balancing act and lifting too many of the restrictions too quickly”. She added: “The five tests haven’t yet been met.In terms of the R (a measure of infections produced per person) it’s 0.7 to 0.9, in the latest government assessment it is below one, but it’s a very limited room for manoeuvre and we know how quickly this virus can spread”.

Heeding the warning of many scientists, and proceeding with caution, many schools have rejected instructions to reopen schools. According to figures obtained by The Guardian, in some areas across the country, up to 90% of schools remained closed. In addition to this, a National Education Union poll of members found that around 44% of schools had decided to remain shut.

In areas hit hardest by the virus, no schools have opened at all. In County Durham, Gateshead and Hartlepool, out of 309 schools, zero had decided to reopen their gates.

The next review

In a Written Ministerial Statement released on 2 June by Health Secretary Matt Hancock, it was also announced that changes would be made to the time frame reviewing the lockdown.

The statement outlined: “To ensure that we are making future decisions about the lockdown at the right time, the maximum review period will change from 21 days to 28 days.This will allow decisions to align more closely with the period of time necessary to assess the impact of previous changes on key data feeds, including the R rate”.

He added: “The Government will also keep all the measures under continual review and will account to Parliament on an ongoing basis”.

As a result the next review will take place on Thursday 25 June, however the government is not expected to move into phase three of the lockdown lifting until after 4 July.

Article Created By Madaline Dunn