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Now Boris Johnson must take the decision of his life
The Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, did a good job stepping up to the plate while Boris Johnson was incapacitated.
Indeed, his performance was a tour de force in diplomatic leadership: good enough to steady the ship but not silly enough to get carried away with grand announcements or even photo opportunities.
Raab’s was a holding strategy and the main thing it was holding back was increasing pressure for the Government to offer an exit plan out of lockdown.
This was the prickly pear that awaited Boris at his first media briefing last week and it was one he batted away, with just a slight shortness of breath, by announcing that plans to liberate the British public from the current restrictions would be finalised in the coming days.
Traditionally the court jester or clown, Boris must now play the magician and conjure up an exit strategy that somehow responds to increasing evidence of lockdown fatigue yet prevents the emergence of post-pandemic parties that would almost guarantee the emergence of a second-wave coronavirus outbreak.
The lockdown lever must be released but only very gently and very slowly.
And yet to think in terms of simple levers misrepresents the nature of the challenge.
As the evidence about this threat becomes clearer, so does the realisation that the imposition of broad restrictions no longer represents a proportionate response.
What we are likely to see unveiled is a route map that consists of a serious of steps and stages that have different implications for different parts of society.
Continuing and possibly even tighter restrictions on those deemed to be at most risk, combined with a gradual opening up of social interaction amongst children and younger people. Back to school, back to work, back to the pub, back to the park… but not (yet) for everyone.
This shift in strategy is best described as a move from lockdown to ligature. Instead of imposing a mass-based approach, it seeks to stem the flow of viral transmission through a combination of protecting the particularly vulnerable, utilising technology and possibly even imposing even tighter restrictions in localities where specific outbreaks occur.
Although described by Whitehall insiders as a ‘whack-a-mole’ strategy, this ‘trace-track-terminate’ is no game: success or failure will be gauged in terms of loss of life.
And here lies the rub. How do we as a society balance out the individual rights of those people who might be vulnerable, against the collective needs of society to suppress the virus?
Covid-19-related mortality statistics reveal an incredibly steep age-related gradient. Somewhere between 90 and 95 per cent of those who have lost their lives to the virus have been aged 65 and over.
The suggestion that those aged over 70 could be protected through the imposition of longer-term restrictions might, from this perspective, be seen as little more than common sense. But what about those over-70s who do not want to be protected by the state? What about those septuagenarians who are fitter, healthier and more active than many of today’s millennials?
A blanket ban on any section of the population being prohibited from lockdown easing, the British Medical Association has stated, “would be discriminatory and unacceptable”.
The problem with ‘following the science’ or basing policy on ‘the latest evidence’, as has been the political mantra of recent weeks, is that it rarely provides firm foundations or absolves politicians of the need to make potentially divisive decisions.
We know the evidence is clear that older people are generally in a high-risk group when it comes to Covid-19.
But, on the other hand, it also tells us about the risks of ‘deconditioning syndrome’, whereby bereft of social interaction and stimulation cognitive and physical skills can decline quickly.
This is the thorny dilemma that Boris must now confront – respect the rights of those who do not wish to be shielded, or ‘force them to be free’ from risks that can be avoided by restricting their liberty.
This is an invidious decision for anyone to have to take but what’s clear is that – when it comes to lockdown – it’s not over yet.
Matthew Flinders is a Professor of Politics and Founding Director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics. From 2014 until 2017 he was Chair of the Political Studies Association and served as its president from 2017 to 2020. This article was first published on the Yorkshire Post and has been republished with the permission of the author. Image credit: Number 10/Flickr.