To prevent a chaotic end to lockdown, the public should be told the true risks

Children return to school on Monday in Costessey, Norfolk
‘Children are returning to school on the basis that the risk to them and their families is ‘minuscule’. What does that mean? One in a thousand, one in a million?’ Children return to school on Monday in Costessey, Norfolk. Photograph: Joe Giddens/PA
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Just tell the truth. If the government is to get the country out of the mess of lockdown, it must take people into its confidence. It scared us into it, and must now reassure us out of it. 
This week children are returning to school in England, on the basis that the risk to them and their families from Covid-19 is “minuscule”. What does that mean? One in a thousand, one in a million? The same as them being in a car crash? No parent will readily tolerate “risking my child”, so a language must be found to set minds at rest. That language should be one of evidence, of facts, not of adjectives and adverbs. 
The British government is clearly having a nervous breakdown over the escape from lockdown. This was predictable – and is not helped by the media, much of it still wedded to worst-case scenarios and “second spikes”. Ever since the peak in mid-April, the statistical path of Covid-19 has been in steady decline, as in more or less every country around the world. However, the specific figures on which this decline are based – for “infections”, “recorded cases”, “related deaths” and the ministerial holy grail, the “R rate” – have been challenged by sceptics on both sides of the argument. Even the number of UK deaths fluctuates from 39,000 to 60,000. Local health directors, presumably relying on the same figures as the government, directly oppose school reopening
Since “the science” – was ever a definite article so abused? – is so critical in shaping policy, it must be subject to ongoing public scrutiny. Across Europe this disease has shown itself peculiarly susceptible to locality, to so-called hotspots. Risk is minimal outdoors, in the countryside, among the young, the fit and the isolated. The risk is far higher – we are not told how much higher – in hospitals, care homes and packed interiors. Rumour is that this “risk differential” ratio is in the hundreds, even thousands. If so, then by how much, and how does it affect policy? 
The risk differential was suppressed when the government wanted blanket public support for lockdown. Now it must make sense to come clean. Clearly children returning from school should avoid contact with the vulnerable elderly. But avoid fit 60-year-olds?
The risk of catching Covid-19 outside is said to be “minimal”. That clearly is the view of the weekend’s visitors to Dorset, though not of the first minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford, for whom any English on a Welsh beach “will find themselves on the wrong side of the law”. Apart from the cosh to Wales’ tourism industry, what is the basis for this policy discrepancy?
Likewise the two-metre versus one-metre “rule”. So wide a gap may seem petty to a bureaucrat with a nice back garden. For a hospitality sector dependent on filling 80% of capacity – such as Britain’s 47,000 pubs – it is life or death. Why not give the exact risk involved in two metres, not just say it is “too high”?
The rough and tumble of politics has proved ill-suited to this crisis. Having insisted Britons take no risks with coronavirus, politicians must now persuade them to take some. They must somehow manage the idea of public risk back to normal. They will only do that by giving evidence.


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