We have been blocked for a long time. We have been there together as a country and in the past few weeks the instructions have been very black and white: “Stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives. “
But the next few weeks are going to be rather gray. The Prime Minister knows that there is no single way out of the lockdown: different groups of people, workers, regions, nations can take different paths.
The Prime Minister has at least one clear guiding principle against which to sketch this roadmap – the Rate R.
Keep the reproduction rate of the disease below 1 and the transmission rate decreases. This will be the benchmark by which all decisions will be made.
It was clear on Sunday evening that any significant easing of the lockout must wait: the rate R is still in progress at 0.5-0.9 and there is still a “terrible epidemic” of COVID-19[female[feminine in nursing homes.
The number of daily cases is also too high to facilitate locking significantly.
A senior government official told me that the number of new cases reached around 16,000 per day, well above the 4,000 new cases per day that the government would like to see before it could lift the lock without risking a peak ‘epidemic.
Based on current estimates, the number of cases is expected to drop to 4,000 in about three weeks, which is why the Prime Minister has set June as the possible start date for the second phase of the easing.
There are so many shades of gray government plan because the decisions ministers make depend on a virus that they do not really understand and on public behavior that they cannot fully predict.
Boris Johnson’s statement marked a change in messaging rather than actual politics.
This is a government that, after ordering us to lock out, is starting to give us a little more space to read between the lines on how we could choose to live with COVID-19.
The actual changes have been quite modest.
From Wednesday, people can go out as much as they want. They can exercise, go to the beach, sit in the park and sunbathe with another person – 2 meters from each other – or play golf, tennis or swim in the sea .
And he also asked those who are unable to work from home – those in construction or manufacturing – to actively try to return to work.
In the cycle, these adjustments give people much more opportunity to return to work and socialize again – albeit to a limited extent.
Tennis teachers can resume lessons and golf clubs can reopen. Friends can meet in the park, and children may have a (socially distant) kick with a friend.
Different people will make different decisions based on their own risk appetite, but as we move along this curve, different things will also be asked of different groups of people.
In June, non-essential store workers may be back at work, while hairdressers, gym instructors and bar staff will have to wait. Some children will return to school, starting with elementary school children at reception, grades one and six, while others will not.
There will be divisions across nations and divisions across different age groups. There may be different locks in place in cities or regions while the government tries to manage the epidemics.
All this is subject to the R rate and the level of new cases.
And there are so many practical questions about lifting this lock. The Prime Ministers of Scotland and Wales raised an obvious one this weekend.
Nicola Sturgeon does not want to change the “stay at home” message and will certainly not send Scottish children back to school from June 1.
Senior ministers are exasperated by what they see as Ms. Sturgeon’s attempt to raise her profile to that of the Prime Minister and to redefine Mr. Johnson as the leader of England rather than the Union as a whole.
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Sturgeon, for her part, says she acts for the benefit of the Scottish people and will not be guided by a timetable set in Westminster.
As for the general public, there may be a sense of anxiety and nervousness that different parts of the country disagree with each other. This creates a sense of confusion and a lack of clear direction and purpose.
There are also obvious concerns from unions and the Labor Party about the return to work message when appropriate safety guidelines have not been agreed.
The unions were under discussion barely a week ago and have yet to agree new directives with the government.
The blue-collar workers returned to work with 12 hours notice and no official direction is, in the words of ghost affairs secretary Ed Miliband, “irresponsible and wrong.”
And when it comes to our personal relationships, the new guidelines suggest that we can meet someone outside our home in the park or go for a walk as long as you are socially away.
But that will of course raise obvious questions – can you meet two people, can you sit in each other’s gardens, can you sit in your own house with a friend if you are two meters away one of the other?
And those over 70? The PM gave no details on their roadmap outside the lock.
These are all shades of gray. Getting into the lockout was a very difficult decision, but once that was done, the rules were clear.
The way forward is anything but, and that may be why Mr. Johnson’s statement raised as many questions as it answered.
As we come out of the lockdown, we will likely be guided as much by our own risk appetite as by a nanny state.
We will all have to find a new normal and it will take some time to get there.