This week, Spain takes another tentative step towards lifting its lockdown restrictions. Many regions are entering the new “Phase 1”, with further freedoms granted to the 51 percent of residents affected.
The relaxing of lockdown here echoes the efforts of other countries across Europe. Governments are considering what steps to take, and when.
They are coming under increased pressure from opposition parties, business, media and public to juggle the demands of economic wealth versus public health. In some cases, not least in Britain, protecting livelihoods seems more of a priority than protecting lives.
Much as we might want a return to “business as usual”, it’s hard to see how that could happen anytime soon. We must adjust to new ways of doing everything, while remaining conscious of the health threat. As Boris Johnson might say, we must “stay alert” to the dangers.
While the message from the Spanish government about the lifting of restrictions was clear, the message from the UK government was not. For several days before Johnson’s Sunday evening announcement, the British media was full of the ‘news’ that lockdown measures were about to ease.
Mixed messaging from the British government during the coronavirus crisis is nothing new. Last weekend was no different and required minister after minister to downplay media speculation. It seems talk of additional freedoms had been somewhat exaggerated.
Word had spread that the government was dropping its “stay at home” message, to be replaced with the new slogan, “stay alert” – whatever that’s supposed to mean. A damage limitation exercise was then required to persuade the British public to stay home during the bank holiday weekend.
As lockdowns starts easing throughout Europe, the approaches being taken by different countries are similar, albeit at different stages. The UK was late at every stage, so, in theory, it can watch and learn! Not that we’ve seen much evidence the British government have followed the good practice of others, or learned from their mistakes.
The PM’s speech on Sunday was widely ridiculed, not least for its confusing messaging.
Leader of the opposition, Keir Starmer, said the statement failed to provide clarity or consensus. It also drew criticism from the devolved governments, which have chosen to remain with the earlier message of “stay home, protect the NHS, save lives”.
The new government slogan – “stay alert, control the virus, save lives” – could be described as the new strategy for England, not for the UK.
On Monday, Johnson produced a written “blue-print” document detailing his roadmap, addressed parliament and answered questions – or rather, didn’t.
Despite the document having 50 pages and Johnson making a statement to the house, no clarity was forthcoming. Starmer appeared to have a better understanding of the document’s contents, or lack of, than Johnson, despite having only had a short time to read it beforehand.
By contrast, the Covid-19 strategy message from Spanish Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez, has been clear and detailed.
Any changes to lockdown restrictions have been discussed at length and agreed in parliament before being announced to the public. That´s not to say the Spanish government has escaped criticism. Sánchez has rightly been challenged over his approach throughout the crisis. However, few PMs have received so much criticism over Covid as Boris Johnson.
While there has been some public confusion about the de-escalation measures in Spain, this is the result of a detail overload, rather than a lack of detail, as in the UK.
A comprehensive plan has been provided outlining the gradual de-escalation of lockdown measures. Even for those entering Phase 1, the rules are stricter than anything the UK has ever seen, even before Johnson relaxes Britain’s lockdown measures.
Whatever we think about Spain’s handling of the situation, the de-escalation measures and clear government announcements have provided reassurance to its citizens. Spain’s policy appears to be health before wealth.
Whether anyone has a better grasp of Johnson’s strategy after his recent poor performances is anyone’s guess. Opposition parties have been demanding an exit strategy for some time. What they received instead, in Johnson’s own words, was “the first sketch of a road map for re-opening society”. We can only hope, for the sake of our families and friends back home, that he now sharpens his crayons and does some colouring in between the lines.
By Sue Wilson – Chair of Bremain in Spain