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Lifting the coronavirus lockdown selectively could undermine collective solidarity, lead to anger and resentment, and may be difficult to enforce, scientists have warned
The cabinet is understood to be considering whether to retain the right to impose local or regional restrictions if the virus surges in a certain area after the current nationwide restrictions are lifted.
NHS England’s medical director Stephen Powis also said on Friday that officials will be studying whether stricter measures may have to continue to apply to the elderly, who are more vulnerable, when restrictions are relaxed.
Boris Johnson is this week expected to set out a roadmap out of the current lockdown, with an address to the nation expected on Sunday.
But scientists who have joined the so-called “independent Sage” committee raised concerns about how selective restrictions might work.
The committee was set up by Sir David King, the former chief scientific adviser, as a counterpoint to the government’s own scientific advisory group for emergencies (Sage).
At the first video meeting on Monday, Susan Michie, a behavioural scientist who heads up UCL’s centre for behaviour change, said ministers must be careful not to cause division when lifting the current restrictions.
She said “people were very surprised at how adherent” the public have been so far.
“A lot of that has been down to the collective solidarity that has been built up as people have been rising to the challenges, which for some people in some living conditions have been extremely challenging indeed,” she said.
Michie went on: “Going forward in terms of lifting the lockdown it’s going to be a very different situation because in the lockdown similar measures were being carried out across the whole population by and large.
“But what we’re going to be seeing is different measures for different sections of the population and so this has the potential for undermining the collective solidarity that has been so important for trust, for adherence, for helping each other.
“And if it’s not handled well (it) risks potential division between groups, risks perceived inequality and injustice and unfairness which can lead to resentment and anger and people getting alienated from the collective and what’s being asked of them.
“Really a lot of thought needs to be given to how this is going to be managed and managed in such a way that all sections of the population are being looked after and their needs are being met.”
With the government expected to introduce a testing, tracking and tracing programme designed to keep a lid on small outbreaks, Michie said ministers must ensure the financial security of those who are asked to self isolate because they have been in contact with someone infected.
She also called for “much more nuanced messaging” if certain groups, such as the over-70s or people in a certain area, are asked to stay in lockdown while others leave it.
And she called for local infrastructure to be rebuilt in communities to help them cope with any measures.
Christina Pagel, director of UCL’s clinical operational research unit, meanwhile questioned whether local lockdowns could work.
She said: “People are now pressing for: can we do local experiments almost for people, having them coming out of lockdown in areas where Covid hasn’t been as prevalent?
“My only question there is how do you keep people local?
“How do you say a certain part of England comes out of lockdown earlier? How do you stop people coming out of certain areas?”
The meeting came as the government published a partial list of members of its own Sage committee, which is informing the national coronavirus strategy.