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Editorial The Covid-19 return to work is too fast, too soon

WHEN the government announced the compulsory lockdown of all non-essential industries and services on March 23, the number of new Covid-19 cases across Britain had risen that day to 967.

The trend was upwards and the government feared that the NHS would not have the capacity to cope with an epidemic on the scale already witnessed in Italy, France and Spain.

The measures announced for Britain were absolutely essential, although events elsewhere had already indicated that Boris Johnson’s government should have taken that action — and more — at least two weeks earlier.

Three months on and the Prime Minister has now unveiled the third stage in his strategy for easing the lockdown. In England from July 4, restrictions will be relaxed on business opening and social distancing.

Yet the number of new cases reported in Britain on June 22 — the day before today announcement — was 958, around the same as when the lockdown was launched.

Of course, the dynamic is different, but is it different enough to justify all of the easements trailed today?

Back in March, it was clear that the contagion was beginning to spread rapidly and would continue to do so. Since early May, however, the trend with all its spikes has been downwards from a peak of more than new 6,000 cases in a single day on June 10.

It should also be borne in mind that belated improvements in the testing and reporting regimes are producing figures which, in the past, grossly underestimated the incidence of the coronavirus.

Be that as it may, more accurate estimates show a flattening of the downward trend in new cases since June 10.

While this may not be due to the first two stages of lockdown relaxation in England on June 1 and June 15, we know that some of the government’s Sage special advisers thought these steps might be premature.

Labour MPs such as Richard Burgon voiced the same concerns yesterday. He justifiably accused Johnson of putting the interests of business before the health of workers and other citizens.

The evidence is mounting in parts of Germany and Australia, for instance, that the early easing of anti-Covid-19 rules has directly contributed to a resurgence of the disease.

At the same time, there is understandable pressure from employees, the self-employed, consumers, parents and other citizens for a swift return to normality.

People want their incomes and their family and social life back and in full.

Yet this government is going too fast, too soon. The Scottish and Welsh governments should not be stampeded into following suit.

Workers and their unions everywhere must remain vigilant and demand strict Covid-19 risk assessments before resuming work.

The exemption of workplaces employing fewer than 50 workers from any such legal obligation is unacceptable, especially when recent cases in Germany have identified small enterprises as the source of several fresh coronavirus outbreaks.

One day, there will have to be a full, open and fair reckoning of this government’s performance in the current crisis. Let us hope that June 23 will not be seen as a turning point for the worse.

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