At the start of this crisis we knew we had to make sure that NHS capacity was always ahead of patient need. At no point in the crisis has urgent or life-saving NHS care been unavailable - that is an achievement that should be recognised. The death rate and number of hospital admissions are coming down. Any change in movement will inevitably risk increasing infection rates so we need to do this slowly to manage it. We need to make social distancing second nature and stay alert to those around us. The most important thing now is to properly protect the most vulnerable and enable the country to go back to work safely. We know this virus is not going away – we need to find a way to live with it.
The Government published its outline exit strategy to achieve just that. It sets out what can be done right now (Step 1), what we can expect and prepare for on or after 1 June (Step 2) and what we are hoping to be able to achieve on or after 1 July (Step 3). Each step depends on the then current infection and mortality rate.
Going back to work
Step 1: Businesses that can reopen now safely should do so. Safety measure guidance will be published shortly to help employers prepare. People who can work at home should continue to do so.
People can now take unlimited amounts of outdoor exercise, but this must still be done abiding by social distancing guidelines and only with members of your own household if you want to do things like play sports. Face coverings should be worn in places where it is hard to social distance – for example on public transport.
You can continue to drive to exercise or walk your dog. I have been lobbying Ministers to encourage the National Trust, our National Parks including Dartmoor and Exmoor and the Forestry Commission to open up their car parks and parkland. We know transmission rates are low outdoors and it’s much easier to social distance in a large area.
Step 2: On June 1, we may begin the phased reopening of schools. Primary Schools would begin with reception, Year 1, and Year 6. Secondary schools would also reopen for years 10 and 12 facing exams next year. Clearly there are a number of challenges that need addressing to achieve this. There are particular challenges for rural schools and after a conference call with school leader, I raised these with government.
In rural areas, many children commute some distance to school. Some very small schools share year group education, with classes held in the same room together. With only some children returning it will be very hard to provide the full curriculum to them. If siblings are still at home needing care and supervision, this will make it hard for their parents to return to work. All of these issues need addressing.
Non-essential retail would also be encouraged to open if sensible social distancing measures can be put in place.
Opening hospitality and personal service Businesses
Step 3: Subject to scientific advice and the lowering of the R-rate, some of the hospitality industry (such as pubs and accommodation and I expect camp sites and self-catering) and personal services businesses (hairdressers and nail bars for example), and public places, (like churches and cinemas) may be able to reopen. I am continuing to press Government to do more to support hospitality businesses as they have been particularly hard hit. Some may only be able to open on a half capacity basis. Without ongoing government support that is not achievable. This is a difficult time for everyone, particularly with much of the region’s industry reliant on the busy tourism season.
My next phone-in surgery will be Friday 22nd May at 2-3pm. Please call my office on 01626 368277 to arrange an appointment.