England has been on lockdown since late March. Contrary to those who argue that UK’s response to COVID-19 was too soft, the lockdown has been harsh, indiscriminate, and, on occasion, it has infringed upon individual liberties. Boris Johnson’s much-anticipated speech last Sunday did not change much. The ‘baby steps’ described towards easing the lockdown are limited to encouraging outdoor activities, such as exercise and driving to distant destinations. Even those rather moderate measures were effectively rejected by other UK nations, especially Scotland and Northern Ireland. These nations, along with Wales, did not adopt Johnson’s advice to replace ‘stay home’ with ‘stay alert’. The Prime Minister has been accused by many for spreading confusion and, supposedly, leading people to overcrowd the tube on Monday.
The rejection of even small steps towards easing the lockdown shows how wrong Johnson was to abandon his liberal instincts in favour of adopting restrictive measures during the early stages of the epidemic. The human costs of adopting a more balanced approach cannot be estimated with any certainty, but the current 33, 186 deaths by COVID-19 in the UK certainly undermine the credibility of lockdown ideology. This ideology was also problematized by the WHO in its 2019 discussion of non-pharmaceutical public health measures for addressing future epidemics and pandemics. Without completely rejecting quarantine as a measure, the WHO warned that its effectiveness varies; it also observed that there is lack of compelling evidence regarding the effectiveness of personal hygiene measures, including the use of face masks.
Leaving aside those problems, the supporters of extending the lockdown ad infinitum do not have much to say about mental health issues and emerging socioeconomic problems. Such problems will be acutely felt all over the world from September, and will undoubtedly assume dramatic dimensions in the European and global South. The most promising aspect of the UK government’s updated response to COVID-19 is the recognition of the need for more localised measures in accordance with epidemiological data. Such data have been consistently missing from the beginning of the pandemic rendering UK’s response to it both illiberal and ineffective.