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Paul Vallely: Exiting from lockdown won’t be easy  

08 May 2020

The virus has amplified existing social problems, says Paul Vallely


How do we come out of lockdown?

How do we come out of lockdown?

THE lockdown may turn out to have been the easy bit. I know that people’s experience of the Covid-19 quarantine has been variable. Some have filled their days idly forwarding humorous videos to friends, along with photographs of their baking, and requests about what they should read next; others have had to juggle working from the spare bedroom with home-schooling children of varying ages — while struggling with the Sisyphean cycle of cooking and washing-up. But there has been predictability to it.

Now, as we explore how to come out of lockdown, a more complex reality is coming home to us. For a start, it is becoming clear that the virus has amplified many existing social problems. The death toll has been double in deprived areas of the country when compared with the affluent ones. Covid-19 is having a disproportionate impact on black and ethnic minorities: an imbalance said to be more environmental than genetic. The spread of the virus may have peaked — we must hope — but the social problems that it has uncovered remain.

The idea that lockdown should be phased out is brimming with complexity. There are reports that the Government wants primary schools to reopen next month for Year Six pupils. Yet, as one head teacher pointed out, the summer term for Year Six is normally packed with educational trips, sports matches, and school plays — all of which will remain outlawed under social distancing.

There is confusion over how people can return to work. Ministers are sending contradictory signals on whether the two-metre-gap rule is to be relaxed, both in the workplace and on public transport for those journeying to work. There are mixed government messages over the efficacy of face masks. Many over-70s are complaining at the prospect that they will be the last allowed out of quarantine.

The situation with universities is worrying. Ministers say that there will be no bailout for higher-education institutions whose budgets will be slashed if overseas students, who pay lucrative fees, stay at home. Domestic students are being given contradictory information about whether they will return in October, or remain at home until January. Some students are being taught online; others are being given no supervision at all — which is why many are petitioning for their university fees to be refunded.

Abandoning universities seems particularly short-sighted when every new potential development in epidemiological modelling, the search for a vaccine, and the research on antiviral medicines seems to be linked to one of our top universities. Paradoxically, the best promise of a vaccine comes from the partnership between the University of Oxford and the British pharmaceutical pioneer AstraZeneca — a firm that, not so long ago, the government of David Cameron was all set to throw to the free-market wolves.

Now, there is talk of placing parts of the track-and-tracing programme, which is essential to the end of lockdown, in the hands of private companies such as Serco and G4S, both of which have had serious problems handling public contracts in the past.

Boris Johnson seems personally to have learned something from his brush with death at the hands of the virus. It is to be hoped that he can pass on that lesson to other members of the Government.

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