'Slowly but with a long tail' - an uneasy return to normality

Published: 23 June 2020
Author: Richard Parry

The general emergence from lockdown is in full flow. Richard Parry discusses the contrasts between England, Scotland and Ireland in the way the process is being managed and the evidence assessed.

Deconfinement (a French word that can usefully be imported) is proceeding throughout Europe in a way consistent with improved data on Covid 19 cases and mortality. That is the case in Ireland and Northern Ireland where daily deaths are so small they are now knowable tragedies, not lost in statistical magnitudes. Scotland is close to that, but in England it is less clear why the scientific evidence has been overridden by aspirational multi-month programmes of relaxation. The 202 UK deaths announced on 12 June and 173 on 19 June followed four weeks in the 324-384 range, way above European comparators.

An important divergence developed on multi-household meetings in the 28 May relaxations. In England, six households could interact outside. Scotland’s headline figure is groups of eight, but limitations to two households, and then three from 19 June, is the important one. Scotland continues to buy time on retail and hospitality reopening after of the three-weekly review on 18 June.

The networked structure of scientific advice, has bitten back. Among the professional civil servants, Sir Patrick Vallance has been notably cautious in his Downing Street appearances alongside Boris Johnson, on 3 June using the 'long tail' quote and on 10 June speaking of numbers 'shrinking but not fast'.

The data appears to show that London’s has had the V shaped pattern, predicted by many models earlier in the year, with a sharp peak of cases and reproduction falling off quickly, making a lockdown of a month or two effective. Other parts of Britain show a slower decline, which can be reflected in the political action in Scotland and Wales.

Throughout Europe, we are past a tipping-point where policy-making becomes irreversibly biased towards relaxation. Ireland continues to, be an important reference point, close to British medical networks but unconstrained by UK policy choices. On 8 June, all street-frontage retail, and indoor meetings of six people, were allowed. In phase 3, from 29 June, the key advance of indoor pub openings is planned, with Northern Ireland following on 3 July. On 19 June hairdressers, cinemas and churches were added to the 29 June relaxations, but two metres distancing is being maintained.

Over four months after its general election, Ireland is now on course to a Fianna Fail-Fine Gael-Green coalition with a rotating premiership. Programme for Government - Our Shared Future, agreed on 15 June and awaiting ratification by party members, is a foretaste of post-Covid politics, with 130 pages of policy priorities of three parties not related to the realities of the public finances. The unconvincing formula is 'we will utilise taxation measures, as well as expenditure measures to close the deficit and fund public services if required'.

A battle is being fought on social distancing, with no country willing to specify under one metre or over two, and every centimetre in between representing money for business. In a world where 'standoffish' is not a compliment, and face masks are not catching on in Britain and Ireland without compulsion, governments may think they have a hand on the tap of deconfinement, but the intensity of its flow is not under their control.

Image by Sachu Sanjayan from Pixabay 

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