Figures from Public Health England last week showed that cases of Covid-19 have fallen sharply in the past month: in London, the “R” rate of infection is as low as 0.4, with as few as 24 new cases a day. And while “the picture is less benign” in other parts of the country – daily infections are at 4,000 in the northeast, for instance, and could be as high as 11,000 nationwide – the trend is nonetheless encouraging. We’re not out of the woods yet, New figures from the ONS this week showing that deaths in hospitals were approaching normal levels were skewed by the early May bank holiday (when no deaths were recorded). The number of people dying in care homes and the community is “still much higher than normal”, and almost 55,000 excess deaths have now been recorded since the UK’s outbreak began. Even so, there is at least “firm evidence” that we’re past the peak.
All of which suggests it’s high time to lift these “arbitrary and absurd” limits on our freedoms,The Government imposed its “disastrous” lockdown – which has plunged us into the worst recession in 300 years and harmed our children’s education – on the basis that Covid-19 was dangerous for everyone. “It is not.” Almost all of those who have died from the virus were over 65, and nine in ten have died from multiple causes. For the “overwhelming majority” of people, the symptoms are mild. And the argument that they are a risk to others is no longer adequate. “Those who do not want to run the risk of being infected can isolate themselves voluntarily” – but it’s high time the rest of us were allowed to “get on with our lives”.
Of course there’s no such thing as a riskfree society, and of course the damage to the economy has been appalling. But what the motley band of naysayers demanding an end to restrictions fail to acknowledge is that if everyone behaved as they suggest, the rise in infection could exact “an even more terrible toll” on our health and economy than we’ve seen already. And most people accept that. Public support for lockdown remains relatively high: according to a poll last week, 54% think the recent loosening went too far. The Government nonetheless hopes to ease the lockdown on 1 June, Among other things, households may be allowed to join together in “bubbles”. Yet experts say infection rates remain worryingly high, and the contact tracing regime promised by the Government is still some way off.
Most Cabinet ministers – and even more Tory MPs – are now “desperate” to lift the lockdown and revive the economy, But voters are divided, and with so much evidence of “egregious blundering” by the Government, support for Boris Johnson is waning. Meanwhile, the unified mood which characterised the early stages of the crisis has evaporated as Labour’s Keir Starmer crafts a narrative that the Government’s “shambolic” response caused avoidable deaths. In whatever way the PM does decide to lift lockdown, he will surely face a reckoning when the crisis is finally over, and “the mother of all public inquiries” is held.