Is Britain easing coronavirus lockdown too soon?

Scientists divided over lifting of restrictions as people across UK get green light to meet friends

coronavirus park
A senior virologist explains why talk of a second wave does not reflect the reality
(Image credit: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images)

Ten weeks after Prime Minister Boris Johnson told people across the UK to “stay at home”, England is taking a leap into the unknown with a major easing of lockdown restrictions.

From today, pupils are returning to primary schools, groups of up to six people can meet for barbecues, and anyone can leave their home without having a “reasonable excuse”. Restrictions are also being lifted in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to allow people from different households to meet outside.

Business Secretary Alok Sharma told the BBC that the government was taking “very cautious” and “phased” steps to return to normal life, and that the process was “not a dash”.

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But many public health officials and members of Downing Street’s Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage) are warning that the lockdown is being eased too soon.

What have the scientists said?

Senior public health officials made a last-minute plea on Sunday night for the government to abandon the lifting of the restrictions.

The Association of Directors of Public Health (ADPH) said that the rule changes were “not supported by the science” and that it was clear “the public is not keeping to social distancing as it was”.

ADPH president Jeanelle de Gruchy said her colleagues across England were “increasingly concerned that the government is misjudging the balance of risk between more social interaction and the risk of a resurgence of the virus, and is easing too many restrictions too quickly”, reports The Guardian.

Dr Jenny Harries, the deputy chief medical officer for England, emphasised that the public “really, really need to stick to the message” of taking sensible measures to avoid infection.

“As we move forward with the easing of our lockdown restrictions, we encourage people to maintain all focus on maintaining social distancing,” she told press at the government’s daily briefing.

Harries’ call echoes that made last week by Sage member John Edmunds, a professor of infectious disease modelling at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Addressing reporters, Edmunds said that “we cannot relax our guard by very much at all”, reports The New European.

“I think at the moment, with relatively high incidence and relaxing the measures and also with an untested track and trace system, I think we are taking some risk here,” he added.

Peter Openshaw, an immunologist on the government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group, has also warned that “unlocking too fast carries a great risk”, and that the nation needs “to proceed with great, great care at this point”, reports The Times.

How likely is a second peak?

Speaking to Sky News on Monday morning, Business Secretary Sharma said: “The one thing that no one wants to see is a second spike.”

But that spike may prove unavoidable, according to the World Health Organization’s top official in Europe, who has said that a second deadly wave of Covid-19 is expected to hit Europe this winter.

In a stark warning to countries easing lockdown restrictions, Dr Hans Kluge, director for the WHO European region, told The Telegraph that it was “time for preparation, not celebration”.

Sage experts have predicted that a second peak could come sooner than winter, thanks to the easing of the measures.

Newly published minutes from a 5 May meeting show that members of the advisory group suggested easing lockdown was “highly likely” to push the R value above 1, meaning that numbers of new coronavirus cases will rise, reports The Sun.

The peak danger point was identified as Phase 4, “which could kick in around August 15, and would involve all kids heading back to school in September, most leisure facilities being open and most people being back at work”, says the newspaper.

The documents state: “As things currently stand, Phase 4 of the modelled options is highly likely to push R above 1. This phase of the option involves more extensive relaxing of measures across a range of areas.”

Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, told a Downing Street press conference last week that the R rate was somewhere between 0.7 and 0.9.

As the UK now enters Phase 2 of the lockdown easing, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has acknowledged that “this is a sensitive moment”, reports Metro. But he added: “We can’t just stay in lockdown for ever. We have got to transition.”

Could there be regional lockdowns?

If a rise in cases suddenly becomes apparent, the government plans to impose local lockdowns in a staggered unlocking of the country and the economy.

“It may be that actually easing lockdown is perfectly OK in areas like London which were hit early and hit hard, and where the epidemic seems to have been virtually passed in many parts of the community, with a few exceptions,” government adviser Openshaw told The Andrew Marr Show.

“But up north, it’s still a very large number of cases. I think we need to be more subtle about the geography and we need to look at the particular areas where it may be appropriate to ease lockdown. Maybe there needs to be a bit more subtlety to the way in which lockdown is eased.”

Meanwhile, Raab told show host Marr that the government had the means to shut down certain areas if coronavirus cases became unmanageable at a local level.

“What we really want to avoid is any re-entering of the lockdown. If there’s any uptick in one particular locality or one particular setting, we’ve got the ability to take targeted measures,” Raab said.

Regional lockdowns have been used in other countries including France, where the greater Paris area was among four regions that remained under stricter lockdown measures while the rest of the country emerged from restrictions, as The Guardian reported last month.

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How do Brits feel about heading outside?

While most European countries have seen the public heading back to resturants and bars, polling data suggests that Britons are wary of being released from lockdown too soon.

In early May, a poll for the The Observer found that fewer than one in five respondents believed the time was right to consider reopening schools, restaurants, pubs and stadiums.

Just 11% of those quizzed thought the authorities should consider reopening restaurants, with 78% against the idea. Only 9% said it would be correct to consider reopening pubs, with 81% against, and just 7% said mass gatherings such as sports events or concerts should resume, with 84% against.

More recently, YouGov polling shows that Brits have also become marginally more fearful of catching Covid-19, with 48% of respondents saying they were afraid of the illness on Saturday, compared with 45% a week earlier.

However, the percentage of people who feared infection was as high as 53% on 21 May - suggesting that the nation is slowly becoming more accustomed to the threat.

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