Now in the fourth week of the United Kingdom’s lockdown, many of us remain apprehensive about the future. There is a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), the UK remains far behind testing targets and the high mortality rate, that we have become solemnly accustomed to, persists.
The news that Royal Air Force planes were delayed 4 days until this morning in transporting PPE from Turkey will do little to reassure healthcare workers on the frontline. In addition, the guidance over the weekend from the government that PPE can be reused is concerning. The question remains, why are we sending our healthcare staff to work without the personal protective equipment they require?
The daily government briefings from ministers have become routine, evasive and Delphic. Ministers now face additional scrutiny from the Shadow Cabinet, under our new leader, Sir Keir Starmer.
Starmer chairs a shadow Covid-19 committee taking direct responsibility for coordinating Labour’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. Last week Friday I joined a Zoom call with members of Shadow Covid-19 committee and frontline key workers, led by Starmer and his Deputy, Angela Rayner.
In the call, Keir listened to the concerns, experiences, and thoughts of nurses, bus drivers, shop assistants, and care workers on the frontline. The meeting typified Starmer’s strong leadership style: a serious, experienced public figure ready to listen.
Starmer has pursued an approach of constructive opposition; aiming to be supportive of the government where it gets things right, yet critical when appropriate, to help the country move forward. This is no time for political point-scoring amid a pandemic, Starmer has taken the right approach.
Strong criticism levelled by Starmer against the government has centred on the lack of a clear exit strategy. As we begin to see our European neighbours outline and implement their own exit strategies, there remains no blueprint in sight from our government.
With none forthcoming, many wonder what one could look like. On Monday the former Prime Minister and Labour Leader, Tony Blair, published an insightful paper outlining the potential ways a UK exit strategy could take shape.
Blair argues that the uncertainty surrounding our current lockdown is damaging our nation’s economy, and people’s health and wellbeing. However, the government could reduce the ambiguity if it clearly outlined how it will return the UK to some normality.
This could occur through taking one of several approaches, such as releasing people from lockdown in terms of age, starting with the young. Alternatively, the lockdown could be eased by region, although this could lead to substantial challenges in limiting movement. Additionally, the government could reopen lower-risk sectors of the economy to help to re-establish economic activity.
Blair adds the caveat that there is no one “golden” solution until a vaccine becomes available. Additionally, relaxing any measures the government has put in place will likely increase the basic reproduction number (the rate at which an individual with COVID19 spreads the infection to others) above 1.
Therefore, an exit strategy must include clear measures that reduce the spread of the virus such as mass testing, contact tracing and continued shielding of the vulnerable.
Blair’s intervention is much welcomed and highlights the clarity of thought that is lacking from the government at present. COVID-19 remains an ongoing challenge like no other in our recent history. The public has been patient and stoic in the face of huge uncertainty and the government must not take the public’s trust for granted.
Dr Martin Edobor is Vice Chair of the Fabian Society, a NHS General Practitioner and former Labour Parliamentary Candidate. He tweets @martinedobor