Lifting lockdown in 2021: the next phase of the coronavirus strategy

COVID-19 Pandemics Disease management Infectious diseases Public sector United Kingdom

With 15 million people vaccinated in the UK in two months, and the latest data suggesting that the remaining priority groups will be reached by late March, the prime minister is due to set out plans for how the UK government will ease lockdown restrictions in England.

This will be the third time that the UK government has lifted a national lockdown since the start of the pandemic. The two previous relaxations were followed by a rise in COVID-19 cases and deaths, and a return to restrictions on people’s lives. There are signs that Boris Johnson’s government has learned from some of the mistakes it made in lifting the first lockdown, between May and June 2020, and the second one, briefly, in December. But despite the recent fall in cases, and the major progress made so far in the vaccine roll-out, implementing a successful exit strategy will not be easy.

The UK’s vaccination success offers light at the end of the tunnel. But navigating a path out of the crisis remains fraught with dangers. The prime minister has admitted that he cannot provide a “cast-iron guarantee” that he will not have to impose a further lockdown – the threat from unknown variants alone would make such a pledge unwise.

But if England enters a fourth lockdown as a result of a mismanaged exit from the third, it will represent a serious failure of governance. This paper offers some advice on what the government needs to do now to avoid such an eventuality.

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