Announcing a new plan to ease lockdown measures and reopen the country, the UK’s prime minister Boris Johnson seems to be moving from crisis control to risk management. But it’s not entirely clear that the crisis is yet under control.
The UK’s lockdown began on March 23, more than six weeks ago. All bars and restaurants closed at the time, along with most commercial activities not considered essential. British people have since been allowed out just once a day for an hour of exercise. An Act of Parliament empowered the police to issue escalating fines and even arrest anyone breaking the rules.
Although law enforcement has prosecuted thousands of people under the new law, including one repeat offender who was fined six times, the unusually fine spring weather has caused some to eschew the risk and at times crowd parks and other public spaces. The police mostly favored polite dispersal over aggressive enforcement.
Perhaps as an acknowledgement of this reality, the government this weekend changed its key message around Covid-19 from “Stay at Home” to “Stay Alert.” With the economy already devastated by coronavirus restrictions, officials have been under pressure to reassure the public with some kind of plan.
Johnson unveiled that plan on Sunday, announcing a series of steps to take England out of lockdown over the next few weeks and months, provided that the rate of infection remains manageable. (Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland have their own government policies.) He said there will be three, highly conditional phases tied to a new Covid-19 threat alert system:
- As of May 11, millions more can go back to work. And from Wednesday, the government will allow unlimited exercise outside.
- After June 1 (“at the earliest,” Johnson said) elementary schools could reopen.
- No earlier than July 1, public venues could reopen.
The prime minister said that without the restrictions imposed by the government, a half a million people could have died of the disease. The official death toll in the UK as it stands now is about 31,000. That figure is based on data from hospitals, nursing homes, and other facilities.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) publishes a separate set of figures, often several weeks later, based on death certificates. In the UK, a death can be attributed to Covid-19 even if there’s no clinical proof, so the ONS numbers are likely to be higher than the government’s daily toll. They may also be a more accurate reflection of what experienced medical professionals are seeing, in the absence of comprehensive public testing.
According to those ONS statistics, in the week ending April 26, 2019, just over 10,000 people died in the UK. By comparison, in the week ending April 24, 2020, nearly 22,000 people died. That’s more than 11,000 additional deaths compared to the same period last year.