In Depth

Lifting lockdown: what the UK can learn from other countries

Boris Johnson set to unveil plan for easing social distancing measures

 Boris Johnson has said the UK is “past the peak and on the downward slope” of the coronavirus outbreak - and pledged to set out a “comprehensive plan” on how the nationwide lockdown may be lifted. 

Speaking on Thursday at the government’s daily briefing, the prime minister thanked the public for their “massive collective effort” and said he would be explaining next week “how we can get our economy moving, our children back to school and into childcare, and thirdly how we can travel to work and make life in the workplace safer”.

“The dates and times of each individual measure will be very much driven by where we are in the epidemic, what the data is really saying, and we are getting in a lot more data every day now and in the course of the next few days,” he added.

And, no doubt, Downing Street will also be examining how other countries across the world have been lifting their lockdown measures.

Austria

On 6 April, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz announced that Austria could expect a “resurrection after Easter”, as his government became the first in the EU to reveal plans for easing lockdown measures, according to Politico.

Since 14 April, non-essential shops with a floor space of less than 400 square metres have been allowed to reopen, along with DIY stores and garden centres.

And all larger shops, shopping centres and hairdressers are permitted to open their doors from today.

Pubs will be allowed to open again from 15 May, with a maximum of four people per table, and hotels from 29 May, reports Yahoo! Finance.

However, Health Minister Rudolf Anschober has warned that the coronavirus crisis is not over and that the government could reimpose the restrictions at any time to prevent a second wave of infections.

The Austrian authorities last month made it mandatory to wear face masks in public, and social distancing rules and limits on gatherings remain in place.

Johnson has already hinted that the UK may adapt some similar measures. “As part of coming out of the lockdown, I do think face coverings will be useful,” he said this week.

“Both for epidemiological reasons but also for giving people confidence that they can go back to work.”

Germany

Germany has also taken steps to ease coronavirus lockdown measures, allowing some shops, schools and other public places to reopen since 20 April.

But the government is considering reintroducing the restrictions after the coronavirus R value – which indicates how contagious a virus is - crept up above 1, the threshold that marks whether new infections are rising or falling.

Chancellor Angela Merkel has warned that Germany’s hospitals will be overwhelmed by the end of June if the R value rises even slightly more - suggesting a second lockdown is inevitable.

On Thursday night, Patrick Vallance, the UK government’s chief scientific advisor confirmed that the R value in the UK was currently between 0.6 to 0.9.

“There isn’t a perfect answer of what it should be but the wrong answer is anything above 1,” added Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty.

A UK government source familiar with Downing Street’s exit strategy plans told The Telegraph: “People are talking about South Korea much more than Germany at the moment.”

South Korea

South Korea hit a new milestone on Thursday, with no new domestic cases of coronavirus recorded for the first time since February.

The breakthrough comes despite the government in Seoul relaxing some of its social distancing guidelines. Further restrictions are expected to be eased in the coming days if the caseload maintains a decline, reports The Guardian.

Parliamentary elections in the East Asian nation went ahead in April, but the authorities “took safety measures, including requiring voters to wear masks and plastic gloves when casting ballots”, says the newspaper.

According to Yoon Tae-ho, South Korea’s director general for public health policy, “29 million voters participated in the 15 April parliamentary election… Not one case related to the election has been reported during the 14 days of incubation period.” 

Experts say the country has managed to bring the coronavirus outbreak under control without severe lockdown measures by implementing a massive testing campaign and intensive contact tracing.

US

Right-wingers in the US are staging massive demonstrations across the country against social distancing restrictions, which many claim violate their civil liberties.

“We believe that the state governor has gone beyond his constitutional authority in shutting down businesses and ordering people to stay at home,” protest organiser Tyler Miller said at a rally in Washington State.

Lockdown measures differ from state to state, of which around 20 are reporting protests by crowds ranging from a few dozen people to thousands, says the BBC.

On Thursday night, armed demonstrators entered the capitol building in Michigan and demanded that the Democratic governor lift strict coronavirus lockdown orders.

The protests continue even though the US has recorded almost 1.1 million coronavirus infections - more than any other country - with more than 62,000 related deaths.

In early April, President Donald Trump predicted that the outbreak could claim 60,000 US lives, but the White House released a new predictive model this week that projects more than 74,000 deaths by 4 August – with an estimated range of up to 130,000 deaths, reports Metro.

China

Hubei Province, the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak, went into strict lockdown on 23 January, and has only begun to lift the restrictions in recent weeks.

Most people in China are returning to work in their offices, although a number of Chinese provinces have suggested “2.5-day weekends to encourage consumer spending”, reports the BBC.

Temperature checks are still being conducted on people entering many buildings, and social distancing is being maintained in many public spaces.

Office worker Gao Ting, from Wuhan, told the broadcaster about her experiences after going back to work on 29 March. “There were a lot of people on the subway,” she said of her first commute back. “Everyone wore masks.”

But apart from that, it was business as usual, she added.

China is now “focused on avoiding a devastating second wave of infections as it returns to a semblance of pre-pandemic life”, reports Bloomberg, which adds that “distanced school desks, compulsory face masks and tracking apps are being deployed from the financial hub of Shanghai to the frigid northern province of Heilongjiang”.

Switzerland

The Swiss government implemented a significant relaxation of restrictions on 27 April.

Businesses including hairdressers, hardware shops, beauty salons and florists are now permitted to open, and hospitals, dentists and physiotherapists are able to resume non-essential procedures.

Schools and remaining retail premises will reopen on 11 May, providing the country’s infection rate remains stable.

“On 8 June, Switzerland’s secondary schools and higher learning institutions will also be allowed to reopen, as will its libraries, zoos and museums,” says the World Economic Forum website.

Spain

Spain is another of the countries that have been hit especially hard by the pandemic, leading the authorities to impose one of the toughest coronavirus lockdowns in Europe. Restrictions have been in place since 14 March, but are set to be lifted on 4 May.

During the first stage of a four-phase exit plan, hairdressers and other businesses that operate by appointment can open, and restaurants will be allowed to offer takeaway services, says The Independent

In the next stage, to come into effect on 11 May, bars will be permitted to reopen their terraces, but will be limited to a third of their capacity.

Advancing through the following stages will depend on factors such as how the rate of infection evolves, the number of intensive care beds available and compliance with distancing rules, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has cautioned.

“We are starting to glimpse an outcome that will be a reward for the huge collective effort made over the past weeks,” Sanchez said this week, but added that the “virus is still lurking”.

Italy

“If you love Italy, keep your distance,” Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte told Italians on Sunday, in a warning against complacency as coronavirus fatalities rose by 260 - the country’s lowest day-to-day increase since 14 March.

Conte thanked citizens for the sacrifices they had made after almost seven weeks under lockdown, but warned that a gradual lifting of the restrictions would be about “co-existing with the virus”.

“You must always respect the safe distance of at least one metre,” he added. “Even within the family setting. Experts tell us that one out of four cases of infection occur in the family context.”

From 4 May, Italians will be able to travel within their regions to visit relatives, so long as face masks are worn, but movement between regions will still be banned unless for work, health or other emergency purposes, reports The Guardian.

Parks and public gardens will also reopen and people will be permitted to go for walks or other forms of outdoor exercise so long as they maintain physical distancing and carry a document citing the reason for leaving their home.

Public transport will continue to run on limited services, and face masks will be mandatory.

Museums, galleries, libraries and retailers will reopen on 18 May, and bars, restaurants and hairdressers from 1 June.

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