When, at the end of February, the Prime Minister announced his roadmap for the release of the lockdown I think we all breathed a bit of a sigh of relief. Last summer, when the sun was out and the days long, it didn’t seem too bad, we could at least get out into the garden and get a bit of exercise by taking long walks. Winter was miserable though, long dark nights and cold wet weather meant that for many this type of outdoor activity was impossible. We didn’t even have the distraction of a proper Christmas this year either, as we were all disappointed by the last-minute re-imposition of restrictions which made a normal Christmas impossible.
In February, vaccination continued apace and the numbers were looking better. The road map was issued, and it started to feel that we were close to the light at the end of the tunnel. Schools were reopening amid fears that it might fuel a new increase in infections, but those fears appeared to have been misplaced as the figures have dropped to consistently low levels in the last few weeks.
The continued mantra from government ministers is that the road map is cautious and irreversible and will be led by the data, but irreversible?
Stage 2 starts on 12th April, allowing for us to have haircuts amongst other things, notably the re-opening of non-essential shops and socialising outdoors in pubs and restaurants, which the scientists seem to think will not create a significant new wave of infections. From a musicians perspective, non-professional groups, bands choirs and orchestras still cannot meet indoors. They can meet outdoors but this must be within the current rules ie. no more than six people or two households socially distanced. Additionally, audiences are not allowed, if anyone starts to listen then the event will be illegal.
May 17th is the big one where we can justifiably think that we are emerging into the sunlight. It has been confirmed that non-professional groups can play indoors once more, although it is not clear what parameters they will be working under. It may be similar to last Autumn when groups could have as big a group as they are able to socially distance within the space they have available, or it may be something else. More widely, hospitality venues will be able to reopen for indoor service and we will be able to meet other households inside subject to the rule of six or 2 households. This is where the bigger risks start to kick in, indoor mixing has long been identified as the main source of infections and it will be interesting to see if this does result in an additional spike, or whether the optimistic noises about the vaccination have the desired effect.
From my point of view this is the period when we will see if the resulting relaxations really allow us to bask in the sunlight at the end of the tunnel and are truly irreversible. The June 21st date where all social contact measures are set to be released – and in the case of non-professional groups allowing them to rehearse properly again – is highly speculative and, in my opinion, at this stage hopelessly optimistic. Don’t get me wrong, I want to see the road map happen as much as anyone else but reading beyond the headlines generated by Boris gives a slightly different picture. Only this week scientists who advise the government have warned that there is likely to be another wave later this year, regardless of the progress of the vaccination scheme and that it may be that hospitalisations get to similar levels to January. Cheery thought! and coupled with the fact that the target for getting everyone a single vaccination by July 31st means that there will be about six weeks where some of the population may be unprotected after measures have been released.
Leaving aside the controversy of vaccine passports there are also scientists who also say that masks and social distancing measures could be with us for some time. The indications are that foreign travel will also be affected some time and that the transport ban may be extended beyond the May date. It is also proposed that a traffic light system may be introduced for quarantine from certain countries. You will have to make up your own mind on the effectiveness of this, but it seems to me that a resort abroad may be in a green light area but will probably be attracting other people from red zone countries. It will interesting to see how they will deal with that one!
Ever since the issuing of the road map I must admit to being skeptical about the 21st June date and little that has been published since has changed that view. The figures from May 21st will be crucial but for bands to be able to rehearse fully and without restrictions June appears to be the earliest possible date. The roadmap will be derailed to some extent if the travel ban is extended, and if the figures start to go in the wrong direction again then who knows where we will be heading and if the scientists are proved right, as they so often have been, then that date may need to be moved back.
I do not intend this to be pessimistic, I just want to add a bit of realism. I genuinely hope that the road map proceeds as planned and that we can all start rehearsing and performing together again. We must be aware though that there is a disparity between the road map and what professional scientists are saying.
We should proceed with a sense of optimism and it may take a little more time than we would like to get back to banding – but irreversible? I think we should take that with just a pinch of salt.