The tests the government has set out to determine when to begin lifting coronavirus lockdown measures are “not a good enough guide to the longer-term exit strategy”, the Institute for Government has warned as Boris Johnson prepares to reveal the first steps to ease restrictions.
The government has been under increasing pressure to explain how it plans to ease and eventually lift lockdown measures so that the UK can return to business as usual – but providing a detailed gameplan will be impossible, the IfG said.
The think tank urged the government to “be straight with the public” that there is “no single grand exit plan to release the coronavirus lockdown”.
The report came ahead of news that this week could bring some easing of the restrictions.
The prime minister is expected to set out his “roadmap” to ending the lockdown next weekend. The government is developing a set of rules that will enable offices to reopen and businesses prevented from operating by the current measures to begin trading again.
The measures could include encouraging businesses to have staggered shifts for workers, maximise home working and minimise the number of people using equipment, the BBC reported today.
Extra protections such as screens and protective equipment could be used to allow people to work within two metres of each other where the current social-distancing measures could not be used, it said.
In its latest report, the IfG said the public could not expect to hear more detailed plans for how the easing of restrictions might continue in the coming weeks.
“Given how little is known about what impact removing restrictions will have on the transmission of the disease, and how business will react, any move out of lockdown will have to be iterative, edging forward while gathering evidence, at home and from other countries,” it said.
“By phasing in changes, and being willing to adapt its approach over time, the government will be able to respond as new evidence comes to light.”
And the think tank also criticised ministers’ repeated references to the five tests that government will use to determine when to begin lifting lockdown measures.
The tests mean restrictions will be lifted only when it is determined the NHS can cope with Covid-19 cases; there has been a "sustained and consistent" fall in the daily death rate; the infection rate has fallen to a "manageable" level; the supply of tests and PPE can meet demand; and that adjustments will not lead to a second peak in cases.
But while the tests “might be suitable for the immediate focus of bringing the virus under control… they are unlikely to provide an appropriate guide to the longer-term exit strategy,” the think tank said.
It urged the government to set out new tests that explain “how it will balance economic and health concerns against each other in lifting the restrictions”.
In coming up with these tests, the government must take into account challenges including the potential for confusion if different rules are created for different groups of people or areas of the country.
Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove said over the weekend that government could reintroduce restrictions that have been lifted “in a specific and localised way… in order to deal with localised outbreaks of the disease”.
The IfG report noted that there had been “misunderstandings” about the existing measures, which were applied as blanket regulations across the whole of the UK. The government has been criticised for failing to communicate the rules clearly enough in the initial stages of the lockdown.
“There is a risk of increased confusion if these restrictions are lifted at different times for different groups, or in different areas of the country. However, the government should still examine whether variation like this would be valuable,” the report said.
“The prime minister will need to explain whatever changes his government makes to the measures – clearly and repeatedly – and the trade-offs and thinking behind them. The government may need to adapt its strategy if it loses public support, and it cannot afford to let policy decisions race ahead of its ability to deliver results. This would erode public confidence and consent.”