Reflecting on COVID-19: Has lockdown been lifted too soon?
As we move towards the three-months milestone of national lockdown, the government is gradually releasing measures to ease society back into normality. Some school children are returning to class, shops are reopening, and families are allowed to form isolated “support bubbles” with others. However, whilst infection rates are slowing and NHS beds are freeing up, the death toll in the UK has now passed 41,000 and approximately 80% of infected individuals are asymptomatic. Many fear that the government has eased lockdown despite the uneven rate of infections across the country and a lack of knowledge about the virus. The question must be asked: is lockdown being lifted too soon?
Track and trace - a flawed ideal?
Arguably the strongest justification for easing lockdown measures is the systematic tracing of infected individuals, which will become possible with the development of a mobile tracking app. The app is designed to notify people if they have been in close contact with someone who reports positive for Covid-19, in which case, they must self-isolate for 14 days. On the surface, this seems sensible. Prime Minister Boris Johnson hoped that the track and trace system would be ready for use by June 1, but as of June 16 no such system is in place. Now, the government claims it may be September before the app is made available. It is understandable that many fear the reduction of lockdown measures when they could potentially be coming into contact with infected individuals without any protection. This resonates somewhat with Brexit, when Johnson failed to commit to his promises and continuously delayed UK exit from the European Union. This isn't just the only promise which has been left unfulfilled - promises to turn all tests around within 24 hours are yet to be fulfilled. As the days pass by without any trace of an app, optimism that the government are justified in their actions is slowly fading. Everything rests on the strength of the track and trace infrastructure. If it had been implemented as early as the lockdown began, as has been seen in countries such as South Korea, our ability to combat the virus by reducing the spread of infection could have been quite successful. Yet I fear the infrastructure is too late to be as effective as the government hopes it will be, and we have missed the prime time to use track and trace to the best of its ability.
A lack of knowledge
It has been continuously stated that the government is “following the science” and adhering to the guidance offered by SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies). However, do they currently have enough knowledge to effectively tackle the virus? There are many facets of this disease that have not yet been understood, such as why some people present different symptoms to others, and why some present no symptoms at all. According to an article published by The Economist, there are many angles of attack the virus can take, and clinical trials are needed to source an appropriate treatment. The government has made it clear that there is much we do not know about COVID-19, which is why they couldn't have known what the best course of action to take was with so little information. With such an opaque understanding of the virus and so much science to disentangle, it feels counter-productive to make claims on what is best for the country when even the science isn't providing trustworthy answers. This, coupled with the fact that a track and trace system is not yet in place, surely means that the virus is yet to be conquered, and lockdown should not be lifted.
Social distancing - a thing of the past?
The effects of the lockdown easing are all too evident if we look at how people have perceived the government's actions to be a sign that a strict lockdown is no longer necessary. Allowing people to meet in socially distanced groups and form support bubbles seems acceptable, but there have been signs that people are simply not taking social distancing rules as seriously as they once were. In May, beaches across the UK saw thousands of visitors enjoying the sunshine, without taking heed of social distancing measures. In conversation with The Guardian, a Brightonian woman said that “It feels like Brighton when there was no corona” because of the vast numbers of people on the beaches. Looking at the recent protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement following the tragic death of George Floyd, people are taking to the streets in hundreds and thousands with only homemade masks to protect them. Whilst protesting in solidarity with the black community is unbelievably important and the movement deserves as much attention as necessary to combat horrifying racism that continues to be seen across the world, mass gatherings in the form of protests with little to no compliance with social distancing guidelines may affect the progress the country has made during the past few months. As the government continues to gradually ease lockdown restrictions and their control of people's movements becomes weaker, the fear of a second peak is becoming all too real.
The big question - why?
Why, then, is the government easing lockdown? As pessimistic as it sounds, is it possible that the government's actions have shifted from having the objective to protect the country and the NHS to being motivated by the need to save the UK economy from complete disaster? Having arguably switched their focus to minimising economic risks, there is growing concern that the protection of the public from catching and spreading the virus has become a secondary priority. Whilst understandable and, in some respects, logical, they are arguably risking a second peak of the virus and, as a result, a waste of the huge sacrifices the country has made in the last three months, to secure a future that some won't be around to see.