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The U.K. government was already under fire for having the highest death toll in Europe, a lackluster testing regime, a shortage of protective equipment for frontline medical staff, and its decision to build a tracing app—from scratch.
Add to those waves of criticism yet another: an outcry from opposition politicians and scientists alike over Boris Johnson’s communications strategy—from leaking strategy decisions to the press before informing the leader of Scotland, to swapping the national directive from “stay home” to “stay alert.”
“I don’t know what ‘stay alert’ means,” said Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the Scottish National Party.
Sturgeon said in a tweet on Sunday that she had learned of the new catchphrase, which is being rolled out in conjunction with the start of Johnson’s loosening of the lockdown, from the newspapers. She again counseled the 5.4 million Scots to ignore Johnson’s instructions and “stay home,” in keeping with the government’s previous standing order.
On Sunday, Boris Johnson delivered a short televised address to the nation laying out a tentative roadmap for the U.K. to return to normality, weeks after most European nations laid out guidelines for how schools, businesses and public places would reopen. But the strategy was quickly dubbed vague and confusing—with multiple government ministers contradicting Johnson’s statement, only to have to quickly backpedal.
Communities secretary Robert Jenrick attempted to explain “stay alert,” telling Sky News that it means “we want now to have a message which encourages people to go to work,” but he later told the BBC the government wants “people to stay at home as much as possible.”
The statement came after the U.K. hit a grim milestone last week. Its official death toll topped 30,000, surpassing Italy as the country with the most deaths in Europe. The death toll as well as the number of new infections in Germany, Italy and other major European countries had dropped significantly before reopening measures began there in the previous weeks.
“It looks like the PM is trying to implement the ‘have cake and eat it’ maxim he popularised in a previous life,” said Trish Greenlagh, professor of primary care health services at the University of Oxford, referencing a famous Johsonism from his days leading the 2016 campaign to take Britain out of the European Union.
“On the one hand, he says he’s not lifting the lockdown because he is determined to avoid a second peak. On the other hand, he appears very keen to lift the lockdown because he urgently needs to fix the economy.” Greenlagh said Johnson’s approach “could give us the worst of both worlds.”
Other scientists noted that the approach was cautious, but called the details and the government’s delivery “wooly” and “contradictory,” and remarked that the testing and monitoring systems necessary to keep infections down as lockdowns ease were not in place.
“It feels as though the ethos that advice from the scientific community should guide policy has been abandoned,” said Stephen Griffin, an associate professor in the School of Medicine at the University of Leeds. He said the U.K. had “achieved a plateau in new cases, not a significant drop,” meaning the government was easing the lockdown despite not meeting one of its own publicly proclaimed “Five Pillars,” or requirements, for doing so.
Some non-expert, public figures were more succinct. Following the statement, Nigella Lawson, the British food writer and television personality, simply tweeted an emoji of a woman slapping her own forehead.
The public seems to be only slightly more supportive of the latest messaging. A snap survey conducted by the polling firm YouGov found narrow support for the Prime Minister’s changes, with 44% supporting the new policy and 43% opposed. Sentiments largely broke along political and generational lines: almost two-thirds of Conservative Party members as well as a majority of those who had been in favor of the U.K.’s decision to leave the EU—even the virus isn’t strong enough to vanquish Brexit sentiment— supported the Prime Minister.
Meanwhile, the majority of Labour Party members and those who had opposed Brexit, also opposed the Prime Minister’s new policy. Support for Johnson’s changes were highest among Britons over the age of 65, with 53% favoring his new policy, a figure that fell to less than 40% among those under the age of 50.
Sunbathing, factories, and seeing one parent—or two?
In the address, Johnson said that people could now linger in parks and sunbathe, alone with members of their own households, and workers who cannot work from home should go back to work, mentioning manufacturing and construction. He also mentioned potential timelines for reopening schools after June 1. Businesses, including the hospitality sector would be able to reopen “at the earliest by July.”
More details announced on Monday included recommended face masks in confined spaces, and that some roads will be turned over to cyclists to help ease the burden on transit.
Johnson also introduced a new five-tiered “Covid Alert Level” system, tied to the rate of transmission, or R, of the virus. Level 1 is when the disease is not present in the U.K. and Level 5 is when the epidemic is so rampant that the National Health Service is unable to cope. He said that the country had been at Level 4 and was now lowering the alert status to Level 3.
In a further blow to the already battered airline sector, he also said he was “serving notice that it will soon be the time” to impose a mandatory two-week quarantine on all people arriving in the U.K. by air, though the government said travel from Ireland and France, which is connected to the U.K. by rail through the English Channel, would be permitted. It was not clear if travel from other countries through Ireland or France would be allowed.
However, because of disagreement from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland with the approach to easing U.K.-wide lockdowns, Johnson’s guidelines appear to only apply in reality to England.
And conflicting statements about further easing measures expected from Wednesday, including the ability to meet other people in parks, turned into a confusing debate on Sunday between government sources over whether it was possible to meet both of your parents—according to foreign secretary Dominic Raab—or only one, according to a government source, quoted in the Independent, who said Raab had been mistaken.
More details are expected to be released later on Monday when Johnson speaks to Parliament.
Lagging testing, defective PPE, and a new tracing app
The confusion only adds to the pressure the government was facing for failing to secure enough personal protective equipment for healthcare workers and care home staff and for lagging behind the rest of Europe on testing capacity.
It has also been criticized for a haphazard approach to harnessing Britain’s private sector infrastructure for the coronavirus fight, with some companies creating ventilators that wound up being unnecessary or not of the right type. For months, it failed to enlist drug companies and university research labs to help expand testing capacity.
Frequently, the press has caught the government going to extraordinary lengths to create the illusion of progress. In the case of PPE, the government inflated the amount of equipment it was shipping to frontline staff by counting each individual glove as a separate item of equipment and including trash bags and paper toweling in the count.
In one fiasco, the government dispatched a Royal Air Force transport plane to Turkey to pick up 400,000 medical gowns, but having landed, the plane was unable to pick up the gear for several days due to export license issues. Then, when the plane did fly back with the equipment, inspectors found it was defective and could not be used any way.
In the case of testing, the health minister set a goal of testing 100,000 people a day by the end of April. To meet this target, the government counted home test kits that had been mailed to people, but not yet returned to be analyzed by a lab. It also reportedly asked hospitals to test all of their patients, even if they were not suspected to have coronavirus.
While this enabled the government to say it exceeded its goal on April 30, when it said it tested 122,000 people, the number of people tested has been below that level every day since. Over the weekend it emerged the government had been forced to send 50,000 tests to the U.S. for analysis due to a problem with its own labs.
The government looks likely to face another debacle over plans to deploy its own contact tracing mobile phone app, rather than build an app based on a protocol offered by Apple and Google. The government’s own app has been criticized for both being technically inferior and raising privacy concerns. To work, users need to keep the app open on their phones, which quickly depletes the phone battery. The app also sends location and Bluetooth proximity information to a central government database. The government says it wants this information to be able to conduct research into the pandemic, but civil liberties groups worry that having obtained this data, the government may be tempted to use it for other surveillance or law enforcement purposes. The Apple-Google app works in a completely decentralized way, with no information stored centrally.
Several other European governments toyed with building their own apps too, only to abandon the effort in favor of the Apple-Google protocol. Rather than follow this example, however, the U.K. has begun testing its own app on an island off England’s south coast while at the same time hiring a consulting firm to look into the prospect of abandoning the project and adopting the Apple-Google solution after all.
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—Inside China’s reopening: 7 personal stories of life after lockdown
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