Across Europe, the start of June marks a new phase in the coronavirus response. In the coming days, new measures will take effect in Italy, France, the Netherlands, Greece, Spain and Estonia, as well as the UK. Several countries are preparing to reopen restaurants, cafes and theatres, as well as schools. It is a measure of how poorly the UK government has managed the pandemic that even the more limited easing of the lockdown that is due to take place in England inspires more fear than relief.
As it is, the week ahead will confront parents of school-age children, 2.2 million people who have until now been “shielding” at home, and millions more adults who have been told they can return to work, with an impossible choice. Should they do what the government says, and begin to let down their guard against the risk of catching the virus? Or should they heed the warnings of the five members of Sage (the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) who believe the lifting of lockdown is premature, and the deputy chief medical officer for England, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, who on Saturday described the present moment as “very dangerous”?
The Guardian does not ask such questions lightly. That they cannot be passed over is a measure of the parlous position England is now in (the governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are all taking a more cautious approach, although some easing of rules is also taking place). The foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, on Sunday described the government’s approach as slow and steady. But ministers appear to be in a rush, and determined to avoid falling further behind our recovering European neighbours. Why else declare their “five tests” to have been met, when the official Covid-19 alert level has not yet fallen to the level (3) said in May to be a condition for restrictions to be relaxed?
Even the announcement was over-hasty, with new rules on social gatherings that should have been spelled out on Sunday instead offered up on Thursday, despite the obvious danger that this would lead to increased socialising and transmissions over the weekend. This, it appears, was judged a price worth paying by a prime minister determined to change the subject after days of public fury about his rule-breaking adviser, Dominic Cummings.
The effect of warm weather on the virus is one of many things that scientists and the rest of us are still learning. If we are lucky, the calculated risk being taken by the government in the interests of the economy and its own reputation will pay off. No one is arguing that the lockdown can last indefinitely. If the tools existed to enable any new outbreaks to be quickly dealt with, then the plans could be judged right.
The problem is that the evidence points to this not being the case. Design flaws as well as delays in the national testing and tracing system are one cause for concern. Another is the systemic weakness of English local government. Where other large European countries are adjusting rules on a regional basis, city leaders including Andy Burnham have voiced doubts about the viability of the area-specific lockdowns proposed by ministers as a remedy for new outbreaks (while Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have all gone their own way).
Besides such practical considerations, the disdain for public opinion shown by the prime minister and his colleagues over the past week inspires the opposite of confidence. June is an unnerving prospect.