Unity in Diversity: An Investigation into the Government's updated Covid strategy

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Amidst its new slogan and the easing of restrictions, there is still the sense that the government would stand to benefit from greater clarity.

11 days ago, when Boris Johnson took to recording his public address which later found its way into millions of homes, he may very well have expected the urgency of his message to resonate with many of the Britons viewing. Given the current climate, this is in many ways natural. The national and media attention has been squarely fixed on his Governments attempts to contain and best the Coronavirus. These efforts have also been mirrored by the public with the breakneck drive to local and community driven volunteering showing little sign of hastening. Beyond this and most important of all is the fact that at the time of writing Covid-19 has gone on to claim 35,341 lives.

With this in mind, the updated strategy urging the public to ‘stay alert > control the virus > save lives’ marks a clear shift in approach as the Government begins its next phase in managing the virus. With the warm weather arriving over the weekend and signs of restlessness beginning to set in, this will surely be of some relief given that the peak is now believed to have passed. Yet where the shift in strategy is now clear, the clarity of the latest strategy is less so. Whereas previous guidelines laid out a more rigid blueprint upon entering the lockdown, the latest measures are underlined with a sense of cautious but conditioned optimism.

In his speech, the Prime Minister acknowledged the fear shared by millions of forced economic inactivity and announced a shift in policy by stating that anyone who couldn’t work from home should be actively encouraged to go to work. This message it seems was aimed with particular focus to those working in factories and manufacturing as attempts at a soft reboot begin to take effect. The first of perhaps greater concessions to come as the long term realities of swiftly cauterising the economy make increasingly grim viewing. How effective this call for action will be though is more difficult to tell.

 

The Bank of England report suggests that the UK economy could face its worst hit in over a century.

The government response will have undoubtedly accounted for some, even significant delay in reaction to its measures, but the public will likely need greater convincing that the time is right to return to work. The current predicament as to whether or not to use public transport may also prove to be a sticking point. It remains largely discouraged with the Prime Minister stating it should be avoided if at all possible but it is still a necessity for many. Weeks of stories regarding the health risks to bus drivers that may have slipped under the radar have been given added weight by the new ONS report revealing that transport workers were among the most at risk from the virus. Such news will have done little to reassure the public that conditions are right to resume travel should public transport be their preferred means.

Though it is true that the majority of the population commute to work via other forms of transit, those that do use public transport to commute to work still account for close to a little more than 1/6th (17%) of the working population, a number which rises significantly the closer one shifts to the capital (53%). Despite this, the TFL, which on 18 May began its plan to increase service levels to 85 per cent of the bus network capacity and 75 per cent on the tube, will see reduced numbers. This is part of its policy which will see it taking in no more than 13-15% of passengers on some services to adhere to social distancing measures, illustrating how transport services will likely be tested further still upon resumption of more frequent commuting.

This will put further pressure on the transport services to work hand in hand with employers to find alternative means of transport or even work patterns for returning workers. Encouraging the use of staggered start times as was suggested by Heidi Alexander, the Deputy Mayor of Transport is one method that has been proposed, but the extent to which it would relieve some of the upward pressure which will begin to rise over the coming weeks and months until the development of a vaccine is unclear.

Knowing this, the Travel secretary Grant Shapps who spoke a day prior to Boris Johnson’s address will be hopeful that his £250million emergency intervention aimed at integrating pop up bike-lanes, wider pavements and cycle and bus only streets will tempt those relying on public transport. Should that number include even a minute percentage of the 67% who commute by car then the initiative would be even more welcome given their long-term agenda to reduce carbon emissions. Ultimately, for these measures to have the desired effect the Government must do better in working with county councils and unitary authorities in the North by providing proper and genuine support to make sure it is applied as aggressively there as one suspects it will be in the south.


Source: London TravelWatch│The number of people taking the tube has decreased dramatically. Despite the images during peak periods suggesting otherwise, London transport data suggests that the current operating capacity has on the whole been able to manage passenger flow while maintaining 2m social distancing. The same data acknowledges that network capacity would be unable to maintain social distancing even at 1m if commuting patterns recovered to pre-pandemic levels.

The timing of the Governments decision has also been called into question. The decision to take the first tentative steps out of lockdown was expected to come sooner or later but doing so whilst acknowledging that the R rate is less than clear has raised questions. To be clear, that there is some variance within the known rate is not the issue, rather the fact that the R rate (the effective reproduction rate) which measures the additional infections stemming from a single case was believed to sit between 0.5 and 0.9 has caused contention. It raises questions as to whether, with this degree of ambiguity and given the very different approaches figures on either end of the spectrum would entail, the risk of testing the waters with a view to leaving the lockdown is the best course of action given what is at stake. That this estimation has since risen again to between 0.7 and 1.0 is a fact that will be of further concern.

The increased drive to ensure a greater number of tests were undertaken will have informed the government’s decision to move in this direction. The head of the WHO Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus who in mid-March delivered a very clear directive to ‘test, test, test’ had warned against the dangers of ‘fighting a fire blindfolded.’

After initial accusations of reacting slowly and failure to conduct a sufficient number of tests endangering both public and medical staff, the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock set the goal of reaching 100,000 tests per day in England by end of April. The sharp increase in tests by around 30,000 for figures announced April 30 was followed by another increase of 41,000 in figures announced May 1. This meant the government ended the month having reached its target, peaking on the last day with 122,347 tests conducted.

Graph created by Mayowa Ayodele│OBV Graphic│Source: Department for Health and Social Care

That this two day period at the end of April was preceded by ultimately upward trending but initially stuttering growth cost the government some time in its efforts to better coordinate a response to the virus. That this peak was then followed by another day in which the 100,000 target was reached again before another seven in which it was not, illustrates part of the challenge in which they have faced in convincing the public that the situation is well under control. Noticeable too is the fact that the number of unique people tested per day continues to lag behind the total daily tests conducted.

At this point, It is important to remember that the UK as a whole possess both world-leading data scientists and figures within the field of public health. The Governments of England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales are armed with extensive data and information informing them along the way. In all likelihood, a significant amount of this information will not fall into the public eye but for that which does, there must be a renewed emphasis on clarity and consistency if the directions in which these governments take in this challenging time are to be adhered to.

Nevertheless, the cautiousness in adopting the shift in policy on these terms has also been evidenced over the past week by the firm response of each of the devolved nations. Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister of Scotland reiterated the previous slogan to ‘stay home, protect the NHS, save lives’. In a daily briefing she stressed that “the risk remains too high to ease up now, and if we do, all we will do as well a put lives at risk is delay the moment when we can start to see that easing.”

This has since been followed by the Scottish Parliaments second emergency covid-19 bill which among other things provides an additional £5 million to support tenants under financial pressure during the outbreak. Though this is to be followed later today by a strategy outlining plans for future easing of their own, the initial response highlights a refusal to be drawn into any hasty decisions.

The Northern Ireland first minister Arlene Foster also stated the country will not be deviating from its current position while Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford also stressed that the country's stay at home message had not changed. Even more eye opening was the Welsh health minister, Vaughan Gething declaring that there had been no such discussion or agreement between the four nations on the slogan.

Boris Johnson’s address 11 days ago was the first major communication from a member of the cabinet with a view to returning to some form of normality. This is after close to 2 months of lockdown. In his speech, Boris Johnson outlined measures with immediate implications for workers and their return to work, as well as modifications to households and outdoor exercise. The ‘medium term’ issues in ‘step 2’ had implications for the reopening of shops and eventual return to school. These are under consideration for June 1st at the earliest. The more distant measures in ‘step 3’ which would be considered by July 1st at the earliest, concerned the reopening of some (unspecified which parts) of the hospitality industry and some public places.

Though well intentioned a key part of the immediate implications related to workers returning to work has left the government open to accusations of a lack of clarity. The conditioned return to work on the grounds of if one is “unable for people to work home” leaves room for less well-meaning employers with potentially ulterior motives to squeeze employees. That the workers most susceptible to this are those from working class and lower socioeconomic backgrounds who also more likely to hold precarious work leaves many facing an uncomfortable dilemma.

The stance that those in this position should be “heavily encouraged" is understandable but questionable all the same. It may have been partly informed by an attempt to appear flexible but in doing so it has risked giving the impression of being non-committal. Worse still, is the potential effect on the workers for whom we previously mentioned.

Open-ended policy designed to be applicable at the discretion of the public is often welcome, but when applied questionably, runs the risk of sounding better in theory than in practice. In this case, when the implications risk leaving workers helpless to more significant forces such as the employers themselves as well as the distributors who may rely on them and further on the suppliers who they rely on, the image conjured is less of 'active encouragement’ as much as it is walking the plank.

The predicament surrounding the use of public transport has been discussed. It may not necessarily be as significant as once thought, but given that those on the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum are more reliant on the availability of these services, they remain significant all the same. This is true the closer one is to the capital and applies even if to a lesser extent in regions such as Manchester and Birmingham.

It has also been highlighted how the government will require more consistent testing to convince the public that adequate action is being taken, though the fact that the number of tests continues to hover around the 100,000 target since the start of May is encouraging, even if the ‘arbitrary' nature of the figure has raised eyebrows. Numerous media campaigns and the focus on the NHS has also helped to maintain morale by acting as a unifying symbol for hope and admiration but the government will soon face additional pressure to ensure that its ‘world beating’ track and trace system is in place soon, despite missing its mid-May deadline.

Lastly, there have been questions regarding two other points, both of which are best considered together. One, which was already clear beforehand, is how the difference in the R will dictate government policy. This is significant because the response of the devolved nations this week has highlighted the apprehension which exists around not necessarily this figure per se but a one-size fits all approach to progressing amongst different regions which may be moving at different paces. We have recognised that all these nations are armed to the teeth with a set of top of the class, highly skilled research and medical professionals but that there is unity in diversity.

Moving forward, officials at Westminster in particular, would greatly benefit from greater transparency in their approach with all parties concerned, to ensure that their coordinated efforts are not undermined by misconstrued discord amongst the separate parliaments.

This includes making clear those to whom their directives apply, a fact which may be less clear during a time of wide ranging restrictions and emergency. On an executive level, though briefings between ministers may be frequent as Jonathan Van-Tam stressed on Monday, the recent mishap in messaging is a reminder of the need for close-knit communication at all levels at all times. In applying these, the government would be better placed to encourage forward momentum for all whilst helping to foster a stronger sense of security among the general public.

Mayowa Ayodele

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