Government urged to consider regional approach to ending UK coronavirus lockdown

The UK’s coronavirus lockdown measures should be eased on a regional basis once areas pass their virus peak, a senior local government figure has suggested.

David Stewart, the leader of Isle of Wight Council, on Monday night called on ministers to consider lifting restrictions within a fortnight, arguing that “there has to be a balance between how long you can lock people in and letting them live their lives”.

Mr Stewart, a former senior police officer, said cases of Covid-19 on the island – officially just 32 – are expected to peak within a fortnight, after which the lockdown could be eased ahead of other parts of the UK and even while curtailments remain on travel to and from the mainland.

The intervention will heap further pressure on the Government to outline a potential exit strategy as the promised three-week review date looms next Monday.

The principle of lifting restrictions regionally formed part of the package of scientific evidence upon which Boris Johnson ordered the lockdown in the first place, and was acknowledged as a possible way out by the deputy chief medical officer on Sunday.

It is arguably the most prominent of a number of emerging potential strategies to get society moving again. Others include allowing more freedom for those less vulnerable to Covid-19 or lifting restrictions in areas that demonstrate the right blend of disease control and economic need.

Professor Neil Ferguson, the leader of the Imperial College London team whose advice prompted the lockdown, said on Sunday a precise strategy would be formulated “in the next week or two”.

However, on Monday night, Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, said that to endorse any potential exit at this stage risked undermining efforts to enforce social distancing in the immediate term.

The developments came as ministers in Denmark – one of the first countries to impose a lockdown – were expected to announce an easing of measures, starting as early as next week. Meanwhile, Angelo Borrelli, the head of Italy’s Civil Protection Agency, suggested a “phase two” of his country’s lockdown could begin next month.

Mr Stewart told The Telegraph that businesses on the Isle of Wight were “suffering dramatically” and added: “There’s a worry some will never come out of hibernation if this goes on.

“We think we’re a bit behind the curve here and we’ll hit our peak numbers within the next two weeks. It’s very important we don’t jump the gun but, when we get through the peak, people are going to need to get out and spread their wings, as long as they are sensible.

“You have got to give people something to look forward to.”

All the principal scenarios for lifting the lockdown involve waiting until the virus has peaked and the number of deaths has started to fall dramatically.

If the UK timeline mirrors that of China, the Government could be in a position to consider lifting the restrictions by early summer.

One potential strategy could involve intermittent social distancing, whereby lockdown measures are lifted on an alternating basis by region. A second could be to allow the healthy and immune out while shielding the vulnerable.

A third “seek and destroy” scenario involves waiting until the virus is at a very low level before lifting restrictions and then combating the remaining cases through aggressive tracing, testing, isolation and precision quarantine zones. This method has been adopted successfully in Singapore and South Korea.

All but the fourth strategy – waiting or a vaccine – rely heavily on the widespread availability of testing, which officials are currently struggling to ramp up.

Robert Halfon, the chairman of the Education Select Committee and a former minister, said on Monday: “I suspect that, when things get better, we will be allowed out in stages.

“Vulnerable citizens will probably be told to stay at home and there will be staged openings of schools and restaurants and businesses… but the only thing we can do is follow the advice of the chief medical officer and chief science officer.”

Christiane Woopen, a professor at the University of Cologne, co-authored a study published last week which suggested the easing of restrictions based on a combination of locality, vulnerability, age and economic conditions.

“The public deserve it – they are taking a lot of hardship,” she said. “They have to trust what political leaders are doing in the next months.”

Speaking on Sunday, Dr Jenny Harries, the deputy chief medical officer for England, appeared to endorse the principle of regional lifting of restrictions.

“London has lot of cases here – if it was found that a large number of people were immune then it may be that different interventions could come off sooner or later,” she added.

“Equally, if we find there are areas where there have been less cases then we need to be very mindful what would happen if the social interaction levels increased in those particular areas and what the impact may be.”

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