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The government’s Covid lockdown roadmap points to an uncertain journey

Catherine Haddon finds big gaps in a roadmap that is dependent on confidence in the prime minister

The government’s new roadmap attempts to balance different concerns and provide reassurance, but Catherine Haddon finds big gaps in a plan that is dependent on confidence in the prime minister

Rule of six outdoors by 29 March. Outdoor hospitality possible from 12 April. Summer holidays and no legal restrictions on who you can see by June 21. The government insists that all the dates in its new lockdown-easing roadmap are dependent on reviews of how well the preceding period of restriction-lifting has gone, but many people listening will only have heard the dates in question – and will take much encouragement from the newly-drawn circles in their calendars.

There are reasons for optimism, with Covid cases falling as vaccination numbers rise. And Boris Johnson spoke of spring being on its way ‘both literally and figuratively’. But new SAGE modelling, published just after the prime minister started speaking in Parliament, showed that even with effective vaccines there is still the risk of infections increasing substantially after measures are eased. The government has set out its roadmap; it now needs to provide greater assurances that it can be achieved.

Many will only have heard dates, and expectations will already be hard to manage

The government’s ‘data, not dates’ line did a lot of work in the run up to this announcement, with the prime minister’s strategy reported to be built on under-promising now in the hope of over-delivering later. Providing dates offers hope to the public, and the many people struggling with lockdown, but it also creates a huge expectation problem for the government. June 21 has been set as the date by which limits on all social interactions will end. For many people that will sound like an end to restrictions full stop.

Throughout the document and the prime minister’s announcement there was emphasis on these being contingent on progress, but it will be harder for the government to cancel a plan it has set out – as it found with Christmas. If the situation allows then perhaps the prime minster can bring dates forward and over-deliver after all. Should things not go well, however, then the prime minister may feel he can only act when the situation is dire.

The roadmap is still vague on objectives, use of data and risk assessment

No government wants to put a number on acceptable levels of Covid deaths, but this figure is at the heart of the dispute between Johnson’s approach and the Covid Research Group pressuring the government to move faster, and what the government means about living with Covid longer term. The new roadmap’s overarching objective – ‘to protect the lives and livelihoods of citizens across Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England’ – is so unarguable as to be unhelpful.

There are also big gaps on how data will shape government decisions. In an echo of last year’s mistakes, the roadmap sets out four vaguely-expressed tests – progress of vaccine roll-out; evidence of vaccine success; infection rates not risking a surge in hospitalisation; risk levels not changed by new variants of concern – and no clarity in how they will be assessed. The imprecision is no doubt designed to allow the government room to manoeuvre, but it also leaves the government hugely vulnerable to political pressure or sectoral lobbying.

An improved emphasis on evidence, but selectively chosen evidence

The government has opted for a five week delay between each ‘step’, citing the need for four weeks to see the evidence and one week to prepare. This is a good step, but the figure probably marks a compromise between those wanting longer to assess and those needing certainty sooner. The latest SAGE release calls for ‘several weeks’ to understand effects before making further changes. Businesses will be strongly arguing the need to know earlier in order to prepare.

There is also a better discussion about wider socio-economic concerns that are driving its desire to open up. Greater transparency on these issues are something the IfG has been pushing for, but the government has been selective in what is discussed. The roadmap mentions wellbeing and the impact of lockdown on mental health, but there is limited discussion of the effects of long Covid and how this is factored into the risk assessment of lifting restrictions.

The roadmap suggests that many decisions in government are far from settled

Our roadmap preview paper said the prime minister needed to ensure the whole of his government was on board – and eyes will now turn to Rishi Sunak’s budget next week. But Johnson's announcement shows how many issues remain unsolved. Some are thrown forward for further study – like the longer-term need for social distancing measures in workplaces. But the recent confusion over summer holiday prospects shows that the government is still a long way from making its mind up on a range of more immediate issues. Today’s suggestion of Covid status certificates, previously dismissed as “wrong” by Downing Street, highlights the ongoing conflict in the government.

Getting this announcement signed off is, however, the easy part. The government’s plan is slow and, compared to the previous roadmap, cautious, but that means months of keeping the public on board as dates – and tests – approach. The document repeats the ‘hands, face, space’ guidance and stresses the continued role for the police in enforcing legal restrictions, but clear messages will be needed in the months ahead. Boris Johnson says his roadmap is a ‘one way route to freedom’, but for a document promising to be led by data rather than dates it is still too much a roadmap peppered with promises of days to remember – or possibly regret.

Prime minister
Institute for Government

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