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Lipsing in the club or broken promises? Three reactions to Boris Johnson’s recovery roadmap

A sceptic, a realist and an optimist walk into a bar on 21 June...

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23 Feb 2021

With the government’s track record, it’s understandable that Boris Johnson’s Monday reveal of a “roadmap out lockdown” has been greeted by a mixed response. Some took the list of tentative dates as gospel, immediately planning outfits for a scheduled return to clubs on 21 June. Others were more muted in their celebration, acknowledging the light at the end of the tunnel but doubting just how realistic the timeline was. With good reason; from the beginning of the pandemic, almost every decision the government has made has been too late, crippling the NHS and driving up caseloads until, at one point, the UK bore the ignominious title of having the highest Covid-19 death rate in the world

Many are torn; a prevailing question seems to be “So… how should I feel?” It’s not like the post-pandemic world offers that much hope for the young and vital. Today ONS data revealed that three-fifths of those forced into unemployment by the pandemic are under 25, while the economic impact of the lockdown on businesses threatens to create a “lost” generation of young people in the job market. Yet house prices are inexplicably still rising and the cost of living is also increasing. On the other hand, the promise of being able to see loved ones and friends alike, while also being able to sit in a sunny park, offers some small respite to the bleakness of the last 12 months. So, gal-dem gathered three writers sitting at different points on the spectrum of public opinion and asked for their reactions to Johnson’s roadmap.

The roadmap sceptic – writer Dhruti Modha

No one wants to be or hear a naysayer, especially when this is the first glimmer of hope we’ve been given in a godawful year but I’m nervous about this roadmap. I’ve seen everyone’s tweets and I don’t want us all to be disappointed on 21 June if we’re not lipsing in the club.

I’ve worked in communications for a few London authorities, and I’ve felt the chaos of scrambling to deliver a semblance of certainty to the public, sometimes with hour-by-hour changes or convenient ‘leaks’ from central government. 

I’ve watched No. 10 attempt to deal with these issues and prioritise saving face (promising and failing to deliver Christmas) at the expense of the safety of working class people, especially those of colour (Eat Out to Help Out and the general lack of accessible financial support).

With this new roadmap, it’s now being proposed that we’ll have four steps, approximately five weeks each apart. That’s memorable – great. This is more of a slow-burn approach than this administration has come out with previously and it gives the impression of feeling more thought-out.

Still, in the briefing for local authority comms teams from No. 10 on Monday 22 February, the emphasis was on data, not dates – these aren’t set in stone and will be adjusted according to infection rates, they say.

“There’s a chance that saving face, and more crucially winning votes in time for local elections in May, will once again have taken priority over peoples’ lives”

I’d love to believe that, but if it’s true it means that this plan could take longer than we initially think it will and we’ll have to grit our teeth at another undelivered promise. 

If it isn’t true and they move forward despite increased infection, it means there’s a chance that saving face, and more crucially winning votes in time for local elections in May, will once again have taken priority over peoples’ lives. Yet another undelivered promise will reflect very badly on the socially-distanced campaign trail.

This administration has been handling the pandemic with the same zippy campaigning slogans as it used in the December 2019 elections: Get Brexit Done has morphed into Hands, Face, Space. Great application of the rule-of-three but people can sense that it’s all style and no substance. Is it really ‘lockdown fatigue’ so much as the anxiety that comes with a government that constantly goes back on itself? How fresh is this approach? It looks similar to the regulations in the old tier systems with longer in between. So will this be different? 

I have faith in the public but less so in central government’s ability to clearly define its thought process and be truthful. Regardless of whether No. 10 helps or hinders, other authorities will need to take it upon themselves to get it together and prepare people to follow these restrictions carefully, keep each other safe and get us to the end of this faster. 

Maybe I’ll be proven wrong. I’m manifesting that this summer we’ll be with the people we love in a café or a pub and we won’t flinch if we accidentally touch each other. 

The vaccination programme is going well, wonderfully even, so it’s not impossible that this will all go to plan. That would be one step in the right direction to correcting the mistakes that have led to the deaths of more than 136,000 people over the past 12 months. 

The cautiously optimistic sceptic – First Person editor, Diyora Shadijanova 

What do you do when you keep getting burned by the same flame? You don’t run straight back into it. This is why I’m cautious about the government’s announcement of a ‘roadmap’, the latest attempt at jolting us awake from this never-ending nightmare. 

We’ve been here twice before. And though it’s understandable why people are excited about the four-stage plan – with rough dates to have most outside social contact rules lifted by 17 May and be able to travel abroad and gurn the night away in nightclubs no earlier than 21 June – we need to be careful about rushing into things when a government has got it wrong this many times.

Of course, what is different on this occasion is the highly efficient vaccine rollout driving hospital admission rates right down and the fact that this particular government plan is the most cautious yet. But there are several things in the roadmap that make no logical sense to me. I’m not a scientist nor am I a parent, so my view on this is somewhat reductive, but how can we be opening schools and allowing indoor mixing of children struggling to keep their masks on, when all teachers and people with a child at home haven’t been vaccinated? 

“I want reassurance that we’re taking this step by step, not rushing full-steam ahead with an imaginary scenario that doesn’t seem feasible without compromising people’s health and lives”

The urgency to reopen schools is understandable, especially as there are children who are at risk of dropping out and are subject to prolonged domestic violence and abuse. But considering the science says opening schools will increase infection rates again by up to 50%, would it not make sense to try to keep most kids out of schools until all the procedures are in place to ensure rates of infection don’t rocket back up? How can the plan say that no indoor mixing is allowed for another three months due to evidence showing very low outdoor emissions, yet allow indoor mixing inside schools on 8 March in the same breath?

Another thing throwing me is the plan to have clubs open a full month before the plan to get all adults in the UK vaccinated by 31 July. Why? By that time, we would have been waiting for over a year, so we can wait another month. How does it make sense to open up spaces that could become a breeding ground for new variants or give long covid to young people who haven’t been vaccinated? This is why the provisional dates don’t make sense to me. I want reassurance that we’re taking this step by step, not rushing full-steam ahead with an imaginary scenario that doesn’t seem feasible without compromising people’s health and lives. 

I’m trying to stay optimistic. I want freedom as much as the next person and I can’t wait to see my friends outdoors for picnics and Pimms in the park without the guilt that has become attached to socialising. But after a year of disappointment, I’m too fragile to deal with more pushbacks. Many of us have been eroded down too much. Having loose dates may feel hopeful for some, but the knowledge that the government is doing everything it can to keep people safe is what gives me optimism. 

The best bet is to take it one step at a time, while keeping the government accountable and keeping the most vulnerable safe – including those who won’t get the vaccination for one reason or another. And as much as I disagree with the anti-vaxxers, they can’t get left behind and stay unprotected either, especially because previous hopes for herd immunity don’t seem possible with no current proof that vaccinations stop all transmission. We can’t rush ourselves out of this. Will it all be over by the 21 June? Not without even more human sacrifice.

The pragmatic optimist, Politics Editor Moya Lothian-McLean 

Let me start this by saying there’s absolutely no way we’ll be in clubs by 21 June. Nada. It’s baffling that Boris and co would even include that as a vague option – almost as if they just can’t help themselves when it comes to over-promising and then failing to deliver. We shouldn’t be in those spaces before all of the adult population has been offered the vaccine; many of the young people who make up the primary clientele of clubs are the last in line for the jab, which makes shoving them all together in a sweaty dark room, then forcing hospitality workers in to interact with them every day, baffling. So: no clubs for me for a while. 

But as for the rest of it, I have hope. 

When I say I’m optimistic, I’m not referring to the inevitable economic downturn that will come after the pandemic, or trying to erase the horror of the last 12 months. The current thousands of UK Covid-19 cases have not suddenly disappeared, and those who have lost their lives will not be forgotten. Life will not be the same as before. I merely am allowing myself to hope that the period of yo-yo lockdowns, the separation from loved ones, the limbo, now has an expiration date. And it’s finally one that is, reportedly, adhering to science, rather than Boris’ previous strategy of ‘full steam ahead and hope it works out’. 

Five week assessment periods between stages are key; dates given by the government are tentative and come with the caveat that they are subject to change. Some have asked ‘why have dates at all?’ – well because indefinite lockdown periods mean increased pessimism and a decreased willingness to follow the rules. Plus, for those scraping by, dates are a helpful map of how long savings etc. must stretch (which shouldn’t be the situation, but with the Tories in charge, it is). That’s not to say all are useful – there is no need to promise us live gigs or clubs for example, which will result in high refund rates and cause losses for venues, artists and so on if planned events are cancelled.

“This roadmap even takes in potential pitfalls like a low vaccine uptake – it deliberately underestimates how many people will eventually be vaccinated and therefore prepares for a worst case scenario”

But ultimately, there is a way out. The vaccines do work. Outdoor transmission is low. Confused Tory messaging surrounding lockdown seems to have caused people to mistake what the purpose of it is: to reduce hospital admissions and death rates. Covid-19 is not going to disappear forever; it’s going to stick around; vaccinating as many people as possible and managing the virus is what will hopefully make it devolve into something equivalent to the common cold. That process is underway. 

What’s more, this roadmap even takes in potential pitfalls like a low vaccine uptake – it deliberately underestimates how many people will eventually be vaccinated and therefore prepares for a worst case scenario. In fact, it’s irked anti-lockdown Tory MPs who are protesting it’s too cautious – which can only be a good thing. 

These first few weeks, where schools reopen (despite a failure to vaccinate teachers) and we see if a test-and-trace system has the positive impact we’ve been hoping for, will be decisive in steering from this moment. Both the R rate and cases are going to rise after 8 March – this is  important to note. But now the government finally, after exhausting all other time-and-life-wasting options, seems prepared for this. I don’t blame anyone for being sceptical; we’ve been lied to, gaslit and criminalised by the Tories for the duration of this pandemic. But life will pick up again, albeit in a strange form. And acknowledging that isn’t any tacit support of this criminally negligent government – it’s allowing hope and light back in, despite their best efforts.