I appreciate that some readers may have been confused when the Prime Minister recently made his Sunday broadcast switching our principal instructive slogan from ‘stay home’ to ‘stay alert’. Through social media I immediately received a volley of questions on how specific changes would operate in practice; some even ridiculed the new wording and suggested we should stick to the previous unambiguous message of staying at home.
However, in my view there is a good reason why President Macron of France has adopted a similar slogan for his people: "Sauvez des vies, restez prudents", translated as ‘Save lives, be careful’ – crucially, not ‘save lives, stay at home’. Quite simply we are definitively moving into the next phase of lockdown and our response to the Covid-19 outbreak. Our position has changed.
It is my belief that the most important part of this change is psychological. We are moving from a phase about what we cannot do, to thinking positively about what we can. The detailed changes are minor, for now, but that new mindset is crucial if we are to find a safe, secure and successful – though nevertheless gradual – route out of this surreal lockdown.
Those minor changes are still noteworthy: restarting brown bin collections whilst reopening garden centres and household recycling centres, all good news given that most of my constituents are fortunate enough to have a garden. For those that don’t, we can now also enjoy more time outdoors in our wonderful common spaces, whilst meeting with one person from another household (provided we maintain social distancing). We can use tennis and basketball courts again. Most significantly, whilst we are still encouraging those that can work from home to do so, for those that cannot we have assumed a default position that they should now commute.
All of these changes have in turn raised a whole host of further questions from constituents, in expectation of absolute answers from Government, understandably so given our recent national discourse has necessarily been conducted by diktat on the fundamentals of daily life. But the Prime Minister is surely right to stress the importance of common sense. Yes, Government has a huge role: on commuting, we are increasing rail capacity so that the still small numbers can keep as socially distant as possible; whilst putting more money into cycling schemes. But I cannot emphasise enough that we do all need to use our common sense about the best way to adapt to the gradual easing.
Perhaps the most significant change will come next month – if it is safe - with schools reopening. As a father of four I understand why some staff and parents are wary, but I believe that it is in our children’s best interests to return to school as soon as possible, provided that we do everything practicable to minimise the risk of infection, whilst being open and transparent about the fact we cannot completely eradicate it.
Last week I raised the matter of schools in Parliament, citing the example of Denmark where primary education reopened on April 15th without a significant surge in infections. But like all questions I’ve raised in the Commons since Easter, I did so from my garden office, via the internet. In fact, it is likely Parliament will return to normal in June and I look forward to returning, just as my children return to school.
Few things in life are risk free. In reopening our country step by step we will at every point listen to the scientific advice and retreat if a second spike looms. Hence, why this phase really is about staying alert.