Covid lockdown exit strategy: This decision is about more than economics – Murdo Fraser MSP

Governments must act in the interests of whole population not just those at risk from Covid-19, writes Murdo Fraser MSP.
New Hopetoun Gardens in Broxburn was forced to close during the lockdown but is now offering a delivery serviceNew Hopetoun Gardens in Broxburn was forced to close during the lockdown but is now offering a delivery service
New Hopetoun Gardens in Broxburn was forced to close during the lockdown but is now offering a delivery service

We are expecting an announcement later this week from the UK Government detailing how and when the current lockdown arrangements in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic might be eased. With the number of cases no longer increasing on a daily basis, and the NHS so far coping better than might have been hoped for with the number of admissions, there is discussion to be had about what measures might now be adjusted to allow more businesses to operate, and individuals given greater freedom to leave their homes.

The Government has already set out five tests that need to be met before lockdown restrictions can be lifted. These relate to capacities within the NHS to provide critical care across the UK, a sustained and consistent fall in daily deaths, the rate of infection decreased to manageable levels, operational challenges including testing and PPE being at sufficient levels, and a confidence that any adjustments to current measures will not risk a second peak of infections.

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Whilst it is clear that progress has been made on a number of these measures already, we do have to safeguard against the risk of a second, or even subsequent, peak. Although there is sufficient capacity in the NHS at present, with the new Nightingale Hospitals not having to be called into service, this is not an area where there is any scope for complacency.

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It is also essential, in relation to any decisions being made, that there is substantial public buy-in. To a considerable degree, the existing lockdown measures have been self-policing. People on the whole have adhered rigidly to the rules, and many businesses which legally had been permitted to open have nevertheless made the choice that they will cease trading, or at least continue with staff working from home where possible, adhering to Government advice.

That said, we cannot expect the public’s patience and support to be endless, and already there are some indications that frustration is leading to more and more people leaving their homes to take what could be seen as unnecessary journeys.

Massive economic damage

There are economic sectors desperate to get back to work. This week many housebuilders south of the Border are recommencing work on sites, with social distancing put in place. Unsurprisingly, there are those in the construction sector in Scotland who are desperate to follow suit, but are reluctant to do so without a clear steer from the Scottish Government. Similarly, there are those who enjoy outdoor activities such as golf asking why they cannot be permitted to resume activities providing it is done in a safe way.

Whilst opinion polls show very substantial public support for current lockdown measures, it cannot be assumed that the public mood will remain as it is on an indefinite basis, particularly as people observe the number of reported coronavirus cases reducing daily.

Every day that goes past with the economy closed down causes massive economic damage. Delaying the relaxation of lockdown one day longer than is necessary will cause more job losses, businesses failures, and sustained economic recession. We are building up levels of government debt that will take future generations decades to repay. That will have a substantial impact on our ability to properly fund public services, such as the NHS, for many years to come.

The economic imperative for an early end to lockdown is compelling. Against that has to be set the risk of more deaths if restrictions are relaxed too soon. But this is not a simple choice between the economy and people’s lives, however convenient it might be for some to portray it as such.

Lockdown’s effect on health

The focus of the NHS on Covid-19 has dramatically suppressed activity in other areas, with presentations at A&E units across the country well down. GP appointment numbers have reduced, and cancer referrals to hospitals from GPs are down 70 per cent. Routine cancer tests have been postponed. There has been a substantial fall in admissions to cardiology wards.

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None of these things has happened because overnight the Scottish population has become healthier. There is a concern that people with serious conditions are not coming forward because they fear a risk of infection within hospital, or simply because they don’t want to burden an already stretched public service. There is now a real danger that serious damage to individuals’ health will be done, and lives lost, because lockdown is dissuading people from seeking the help that they need, and leading to a failure to identify early other health conditions.

Nor can we dismiss the impact on individuals’ mental health from lockdown. For many people living alone, the last few weeks have been an extremely difficult time with the inability to leave home and enjoy normal social interaction. There is a danger that an extended lockdown to tackle coronavirus leads to a mental health epidemic putting pressure on an NHS which was already struggling to provide adequate care for those facing these issues.

There is much we can learn from other countries about the use of a policy of testing, tracing and isolation in order to tackle the current pandemic, and the UK Government has now invested heavily in testing capacity right across the country. This is just one element in ensuring the public consent that will be necessary for the easing of lockdown restrictions.

Risk of a second spike

It is also highly desirable that the same approach to easing lockdown restrictions is taken across the whole United Kingdom, with a continuation of the four-nation policy that has largely been followed so far. As we saw with the construction industry some weeks ago, there is a risk of public confusion from mixed messages coming out from different levels of government.

Last week’s comments from the First Minister on the use of face coverings on public transport and in shops may have been well-intentioned, but with a different message coming out from the UK Government at the same time, it is not surprising that the level of public take-up appears to have been low. If we are to have general and widespread support for a new approach to lockdown, then having one single set of messages that apply in all parts of the country is going to be essential.

The worst possible outcome from all this would be too early a relaxation of restrictions that lead to another spike in the number of cases, and our hospitals being overwhelmed. Whatever choices governments make they must be done in the interests of the best health outcomes for the whole population, including, but not restricted to, those at risk from Covid-19.

Murdo Fraser is a Conservative MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife

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