Covid-19 lockdown: Any exit strategy will need public support to work – Ian Swanson

Politicians can allow offices, pubs and restaurants to re-open when the coronavirus lockdown is gradually lifted, but will people return, wonders Ian Swanson.
Pubs may be allowed to re-open when the lockdown's restrictions are eased but customers may choose to stay away (Picture: Andrew Roe)Pubs may be allowed to re-open when the lockdown's restrictions are eased but customers may choose to stay away (Picture: Andrew Roe)
Pubs may be allowed to re-open when the lockdown's restrictions are eased but customers may choose to stay away (Picture: Andrew Roe)

Unlock! For much of last year, it was the familiar shout from the then Speaker John Bercow after he had announced the latest knife-edge Brexit vote in the House of Commons.

Now it seems to be the demand from many MPs and business leaders eager to see an early lifting of the restrictions on movement imposed to stop the spread of coronavirus.

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But several polls at the weekend suggested the public is by no means enthusiastic about ending the lockdown any time soon.

In one survey of more than 2,000 people, 75 per cent rejected the idea the Government should move more quickly to lift the current restrictions so that the economy “can fire up again” while only 16 per cent wanted the plans to be speeded up.

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Another survey found just 17 per cent support for considering reopening schools, while 67 per cent said they should stay closed. Only 11 per cent said it was time to consider reopening restaurants, with 78 per cent against. For pubs it was nine per cent for reopening and 81 per cent against. And for mass gatherings, only seven per cent were ready to consider lifting the ban, with 84 per cent opposed.

High levels of anxiety

As Adam Drummond of Opinium noted: “The clamour to ‘reopen the economy’ is largely taking place in Westminster and is not really reflective of wider public sentiment.”

And psychologists have warned lifting the lockdown could lead to high levels of anxiety.

After six weeks of strict warnings about the dangers of going out for more than a short walk each day and the need to stay at home to keep safe, people might feel there needs to be some very clear change of circumstance to justify a different approach. Boris Johnson’s declaration that we are “past the peak” may not be enough.

No doubt there would be a certain relief at the opportunity to get out and about again. But would everyone immediately flock back to the pubs, restaurants, shops, theatres and cinemas?

The Prime Minister is expected to set out plans later this week for a “slow return to normality” with some reports saying he will name a target date of May 26 for encouraging people to go back to work, with special measures in place to maintain social distancing.

Practical difficulties

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And there have also been reports that schools south of the border could start reopening on June 1, with primary schools first to go back.

But the practical difficulties are all too easy to see. Large numbers of people commuting to work by bus or train will be a problem. It is estimated social distancing would mean trains that would typically carry over 1,000 passengers might have room for just 200 and a double-decker bus which usually takes up to 75 could be down to just 18. Add to that the logistical challenges of keeping your distance in the office and many people might well prefer to continue working from home even once a return to work is allowed.

And schools face obvious problems in trying to maintain social distancing among pupils, especially the younger ones. In France some parents have already said they will keep their children at home when schools there reopen next week.

Mr Johnson may be more cautious in his approach than reports suggest. But whenever restrictions are eased, the Government is likely to find that lifting the lockdown depends on public support just as much as imposing it has.

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