Following the ease up of lockdown restrictions this week, health secretary Matt Hancock detailed how the 'local flareups' of coronavirus will be handled, but left a number of questions unanswered.
We're heading into phase two of the Prime Minister's lockdown exit plan which sees schools reopening, non-essential shops getting back to business from June 15, and letting groups of up to six people meet up outdoors in public or private spaces while socially distancing. But the virus hasn't gone anywhere just because we're being nudged into getting back to pre-lockdown life, and the government seems to be relying on its horribly invasive NHS Test and Trace system (which went live without completing a legally mandated data protection impact assessment) to identify and manage local flareups and subsequent local lockdowns.
Matt Hancock went into slightly more depth on how that plan will work, saying that the local director of Public Health will work with the regional Public Health England (PHE) and NHS teams to make sure the local response is the "right" one. The Joint Biosecurity Centre's (JBC) role is to provide advice and information at a national level, which will then be acted on locally. So the trickle down of information and advice goes from the JBC to Chief Medical Officers (CMO), who then advise ministers and local public heath bodies through PHE. Hancock then admitted that the JBC "formerly needs to come into existence" and is still in the process of being set up.
Professor John Newton was then asked to chime in, saying that localised outbreak control is "likely to be used" as it has been in other countries, which will involve "other public services, fire service, police and so on," who will "contribute and look at measures that might be taken."
"It’s likely that the outbreaks will occur in certain areas and therefore one of the things which will be required is... mutual aid, where an area has to close a certain unit, maybe an element of healthcare or social care, other areas can come into help them. So there are a number of things that need to be done if you have a local flareup. Some Public Health, some more to do with a system response.
This is really an extension of normal processes, but with a very different flavour because of the coronavirus."
Last week, secretary of state for housing, communities & local government, Robert Jenrick, talked about "micro level" measures that can be deployed to stamp out the virus before it spreads again, saying:
"[It] enables us then to take action in that place which will be restrictive on the individuals who live and work there... but as a result of that we'll be able to provide greater freedom to millions of other people across the country, enabling us to continue to ease the lockdown, ease the return to school, to work and to the daily activities that we all want to get back to."
Boris Johnson has dubbed this a "whack-a-mole" approach, saying that the government will work with "local outbreak committees" to establish what kind of action needs to be taken at a local level, using the example of Weston-super-Mare's hospital temporarily closing to new admissions as asymptomatic staff tested positive, and a number of patients were also found to be infected.
What hasn't been touched on is possible travel restrictions in the areas experiencing 'local flareups' or if we can expect any of the measures we've seen nationwide return to towns and cities in the wake of them. The police couldn't get enough of ignoring what the powers the emergency Coronavirus Bill actually gave them, and instead took it upon themselves to roll out unsanctioned measures like road blocks with no authorisation from the government whatsoever. At the time, transport secretary Grant Shapps admitted that the police had gone "further than they should have," while former supreme court justice, Lord Sumption, called the behaviour of some region's police force "disgraceful", all of which lead to the police being reissued guidelines on what they should be doing.
There's been no clarification on how local flareups will be contained, or what penalties people can expect for a range of behaviours that may suddenly be deemed unacceptable if the virus rears its head in your locale. Given that the government was slow to roll out any basic measures when the pandemic kicked off, and wasn't clear enough on the guidelines to avoid confusion, it really needs to be crystal clear as the economy reopens to avoid a second wave.
A lot of the responsibility for keeping the virus from spreading also lies with the public, but despite calls by London mayor Sadiq Khan to make masks mandatory for shopping and public transport, nothing official was rolled out off the back of that, and commuters packed themselves onto buses, with no masks, and no social distancing. The public seems happy to tear the government a new one for its failings (as it should) but isn't shouldering any of the burden or responsibility for doing its bit in all of this. Which is exactly why the plan for handling local flareups needs to be detailed now, before they happen, so everyone knows what's expected of them in advance. [Metro]