I think it’s fair to say that we’re all getting a bit fed up with the lockdown. But like most people, I can see why we’re doing it and am happy to play my part in keeping people safe. If some of the newspapers are to be believed, though, things will be back to normal within days. I don’t think for one moment that this is the case. But it does raise the valid question of how, when the time is right, we’ll go about unlocking the lockdown.
We’ve all learned enough about epidemiology over the last few weeks to understand why the lockdown is important. By staying at home and preventing the spread of the virus, we’re helping to reduce the burden on our healthcare facilities and to protect those for whom COVID-19 represents a significant health risk (which, it turns out, could be pretty much any of us).
We also recognise, however, that we can’t stay in lockdown forever. We’re making great strides in developing a vaccine and in finding more effective treatments for those affected most severely by the virus. But a complete solution is still some way off. And so it’s likely that we’ll have to find ways, collectively, of living our lives while the virus is still in circulation.
This is not a case, though, of simply going back to how things were and hoping for the best. Such an approach would, say the experts, negate everything that we’ve done so far and probably lead to an overwhelming ‘second wave’ of infections, hospitalisations and deaths.
We’re going to need some kind of coordinated approach. An approach that is guided by a detailed understanding of the epidemiology of the virus (an understanding, incidentally, that we don’t yet have) and of its public health impacts. Not, I feel I need to add, an approach that is guided by political dogma or by the desire of certain members of society to advance their own wealth or position.
Just because we want the lockdown to end, does not mean that it can. It would be nice if that was the way the world worked, but it’s not. We’re all suffering. Some more than others. But we may need to keep suffering a little longer if we are to avoid an even greater tragedy in the longer term.
That said, we need also to recognise that we’ll probably never reach a stage – even with a vaccine – where we can end the lockdown in a totally risk-free way. The best we can hope for is to bring the risks associated with COVID-19 down to a manageable level. After all, we still drive around in cars, despite the not-insignificant risk of having an accident and getting hurt.
In finding a way to unlock the lockdown, though, I worry that we’re going to be driven by the easy wins. We’ll unlock the things that are easiest to unlock; the aspects of economy and society that are most amenable to social distancing and whatever other public health considerations may come into play.
Or we’ll be driven by the people who shout the loudest. Or who have the ear of those in power.
Neither of these approaches, in my view, is particularly wise. Because as and when we get to the stage where we can start to think about unlocking the lockdown, we should be guided by what we need, rather than by what’s easiest to do or by what people want. If betting shops and arms fairs get up and running again before schools and bereavement support groups, for example, we’ll know we’re doing something wrong.
My suggestion, as someone who doesn’t know much about epidemiology but does know a fair bit about the philosophy behind all of this, would be to think carefully about what we need to have in place for society to work effectively in the short, the medium and the long term.
The fact that, while I’m writing this, I have continued access to water, food, electricity, an internet connection and my bank account means that we probably have most of the short-term essentials covered. But is everyone else in the same position? I think perhaps not. And are we providing these essentials in a safe and sustainable way? I’m unsure.
In the medium and the longer term, we’re going to need a few other things to start working again, too. But we need to think carefully about what they are and how we can ‘unlock’ then in way that minimises the risk of starting off another wave of coronavirus infections.
This might mean that we have to do things in a different way from before. Different ways of making things. Different jobs. Different patterns of working. Local supply chains, rather than relying on imports. Realising that some of the things we thought we needed aren’t actually that essential after all.
We’ll also need to consider carefully the interdependencies between different activities. If we’re going to get factories up and running again, they’re going to need raw materials. And if we want more shops to open, they’ll need stock. And staff. So if we’re going to get people back to work in significant numbers, we’ll need to make sure that we can safely re-open our schools, too.
It may also be that we’ll need to accept some degree of regional differentiation in what we can unlock and when. The virus appears to have spread slowly across the country, meaning that different cities and regions are at different stages in terms of the ‘lifecycle’ of the outbreak. And so what is safe and feasible in London may not yet be suitable for the North East or the South West.
We could also, of course, use this period of reinvention to think more fundamentally about how to create a fairer, more just economy and society. And to give serious thought to how we can make things resilient in the face of climate breakdown. But I suspect, sadly, that this may be demanding too much of the limited bandwidth for deep thought demonstrated by our political leaders.
So is this the right time to start thinking about unlocking the lockdown? I don’t know. But people who do know, like doctors and epidemiologists and public health specialists, say it isn’t. They say that to give people the ‘all clear’ now to go about their business would, in fact, be absolutely idiotic. So I’m going to go with them for the moment.
But when we do (hopefully) get to the stage where we can start to think about unlocking the lockdown, we need to go about it cautiously and with an eye to what we actually need, rather than what we might want.
We need to go about it as if our future depends on getting it right.
Because it does.