Schools will close from Friday afternoon as the government steps up its effort to reduce the spike in coronavirus infections, and keep the numbers within the limits that the NHS can deal with. In a sign of how long these measures will go on for, Boris Johnson also announced that this summer’s exams will not go ahead. In an effort to limit the disruption that school closures will cause, some educational establishment will remain open to look after the children of key workers: NHS staff, delivery drivers and the like.
The question for the government now is if you want to do everything to reduce the spike, should the government’s ‘very strong advice’ on social distancing become compulsory? Boris Johnson is, obviously, reluctant to do this. The government telling people when they can leave their house goes against all his political instincts. As he said in the press conference, this is a country with a deep and proud tradition of liberty. But the strong impression I get from talking to people in Whitehall is that such measures are coming, at least in London. Boris Johnson said yesterday that he leads a ‘wartime government’ and wartime governments do sometimes have to temporarily restrict civil liberties in ways that make us deeply uncomfortable.
This press conference did, though contain grounds for optimism. Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, was upbeat on how close Public Health England are to creating a test for who has had coronavirus and recovered. That tool would make everything easier. First, key workers wouldn’t need to be sent home unnecessarily as soon as they have any coronavirus symptoms. Second, those people who have had it can volunteer to help out in hospitals and with deliveries knowing that they are posing minimal risk to their own health. Finally, those who have had the virus can start to resume normal life, going to work and spending money, which is going to be vital if the economy is going to avoid a very deep recession.