The government now has a plan for how it intends to get out of this crisis. It is, as I say in the magazine this week, to drive the coronavirus transmission rate down as low as possible and then stay on top of it through a ‘track, trace and test’ approach. In other words, the government is going to go South Korean on the virus.
For this approach to work, you need accurate data – something which has been sorely lacking to date. But the hope in Whitehall is that clarity is on the way. The Office for National Statistics is undertaking a mass random testing programme that should provide the government with regular data on how many Covid cases there are and which demographics are particularly at risk. Armed with this information, they will no longer be flying blind and can begin formulating policy. Ministers will have the first results from this new survey in the coming days.
The government’s hope is that this information combined with greater testing and contact tracing can allow it to take a much more targeted approach in future, rather than resorting to the sledgehammer option of a national lockdown. So, for example, if Bristol became a virus hotspot, testing could begin on a large scale and an army of contact-tracers could be deployed. Until the outbreak was contained, schools and non-essential retail in Bristol could be closed while the rest of the country continued as normal.
Such an approach offers far more flexibility, and means that the economic damage is far more limited. This is important, because trying to force the virus into reverse is an incredibly delicate operation. Just look at how Germany is having to consider re-imposing restrictions because its R number is now back up to one.
In Downing Street, they do not think that the process of getting out of lockdown is going to be smooth or quick. Next week’s review will, I understand, see only the mildest easing of the current restrictions.