The Guardian view on extending the lockdown: right call, but what next? | Editorial | Opinion

The foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, on Thursday confirmed the extension of the UK’s Covid-19 lockdown measures for a further three weeks. The announcement had been widely trailed, and if Mr Raab had said anything else it would have been a surprise. It was nevertheless a big decision – the biggest this government has taken in Boris Johnson’s absence. The lockdown will now continue until at least 7 May. On the basis of the country’s behaviour these past three weeks, there is good reason to expect the measures to be observed.

The extension puts fresh pressure on the public, the vulnerable, business and the economy. But it is the correct decision. The coronavirus pandemic remains virulent. Thursday brought confirmation of 4,618 new positive tests for the virus and of 861 new deaths in hospital in the UK. These figures are worse than Wednesday’s. The trend of new cases and deaths is abating by comparison with a week ago, which is cause for some relief. But the numbers are still high. The fight against the pandemic, as Mr Raab said, is at a “delicate and dangerous” stage. This is not the time to start easing the control measures in ways that could endanger lives and threaten to overwhelm the health and care services.

Mr Raab was aware that things are beginning to change in some countries. But he gave few clues away about UK government thinking on future easing. That was no surprise either. Ministers still regard public discussion of any exit strategy as off limits. Matt Hancock gave a vigorous defence of that policy in a round of interviews on Thursday, insisting that the government has no intention of deviating from the core message to stay at home and save lives. His junior minister Nadine Dorries even said journalists should stop asking about the subject.

But the pressure on ministers to start setting out their future options will not go away. Nor should it. Ministerial silence means one of two things. It either means that ministers cannot agree what to do next, especially without a lead from Mr Johnson. Or it means they do not trust the public to behave responsibly. Both are alarming. The first implies that parts of the government may have a Trumpian recklessness towards public safety. The second implies that ministers underestimate the people. Both of them justify Labour attempts to bring the exit strategy issue out into the public realm where it should now belong.

There is no contradiction between maintaining lockdown and airing some practical issues to which the country will need to become accustomed when the lockdown is eased. The public can keep two ideas in their heads at the same time. Most people understand that social distancing remains key to suppressing the pandemic until immunity is established and vaccines can be developed. Even more would do so if British ministers possessed the kind of communication skills about the dilemmas that Angela Merkel displayed this week. Refusing to discuss the easing of controls may in the end have the opposite effect to what is intended, by creating a pent-up wish to abandon the current disciplines.

Mr Raab skated on thin ice over this. But the return of parliament next week will make the government’s position harder to maintain. So will the prudent easing measures that are being introduced in some European countries this week. It is therefore time to lay the ground for an eventual easing here too. It needs to be done well and rationally, not badly and confusedly, let alone in the Trump manner.

We need to start getting used to the idea that parts of the economy, some demographic groups and maybe some regions will begin, perhaps in late May, to be subject to different levels of control. Some businesses, workforces, demographic groups and locations will nevertheless remain in lockdown, possibly for months. Continued social distancing, wider public use of protective equipment including masks and gloves, and some system of testing and tracing will all need to be considered. Good policing of the easing will be crucial. The new normal will not be like the old, pre-pandemic, normal in many ways. The government may need to call a halt if virus cases spike upwards. But Britain stumbled into the Covid-19 crisis. It does not need to stumble out of it.

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