Caution, confusion mark UK premier’s approach to lifting Covid lockdown

On what should have been a day of celebration, UK cabinet ministers have come across distinctly uneasy at the latest phase of the lifting of lockdown in England, Wales and parts of Scotland, which allows the reopening of indoor hospitality, hugging, overnight stays with other households and foreign travel.
Boris Johnson’s message was not for people to get out and support their local business, but instead for them to exercise a “heavy dose of caution”.
The contrast with last year’s great reopening – which saw a maskless Rishi Sunak cheerily serve diners at a London riverside branch of Wagamama, where the chancellor exhorted the public to “eat out to help out” – was stark.
Yesterday, there were no pictures of Johnson giving a thumbs-up or enjoying a fry-up, though his new health regime may have prohibited both in any event.
Matt Hancock told broadcasters that he would be hugging his parents – but he would stay outside, where the risk is lower.
The tone was more reminiscent of the confused public messaging at the start of the pandemic, parodied by Matt Lucas in his viral “go to work, don’t go to work” tweet.
“You can now travel abroad without being fined, but you shouldn’t travel abroad,” No 10 said yesterday.
It was unable to answer the question of why travel to amber list countries – those where home quarantine is still mandatory – was allowed at all if people were being strongly discouraged from doing so.
You can hug your vaccinated parents – but you should consider not doing so.
You can eat indoors in a restaurant, but Sage scientists queued up on broadcasters to suggest that they would not do that themselves.
Just one, Graham Medley, professor of infectious disease modelling at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said he would risk it – and only in a far-fetched set of conditions, telling LBC he would go indoors “in an area of low prevalence and the clientele was very old (and therefore likely to be vaccinated)”.
The awkwardness surrounding this stage of unlocking – largely because nobody knows the potential impact of the new variant of coronavirus first detected in India – risks very mixed public health messaging.
It is not possible to overstate how unwelcome any delay to the roadmap would be in Downing Street.
Johnson himself was won over, and in turn won over Sunak and his restive backbenchers, by the case that the slower the reopening goes, the more likely it will be permanent.
Johnson has resisted entreaties from his MPs to speed up unlocking. He is desperate to be proved right and to show that caution equals permanence.
To reverse now would be extremely difficult.
And Downing Street, even with all its domestic caution, is not blameless for the current situation. It delayed putting India on the red list for 17 days after its neighbours Pakistan and Bangladesh, while Johnson was slated for a visit to Delhi during that period.
The final test will be the hardest – whether to proceed with “freedom day” on June 21.
There is much riding on that, from weddings and festivals to the profits of restaurants that are desperate to ditch social distancing.
Even before then, Johnson will face difficult calls from the travel industry to start opening up quarantine-free travel to holiday hotspots such as Spain and Greece.
Johnson was a late convert to the concept that cautious unlocking when case rates are at rock bottom is ultimately the best way of protecting the economy, rather than a rush to freedom. The question now is: can he hold his nerve? – Guardian News and Media


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