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Coronavirus: UK not singing from same hymn sheet despite new mantra

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Prime Minister Boris Johnson addressing the nation about coronavirus (COVID-19) from 10 Downing Street in London. PA Photo

Prime Minister Boris Johnson addressing the nation about coronavirus (COVID-19) from 10 Downing Street in London. PA Photo

PA

Prime Minister Boris Johnson addressing the nation about coronavirus (COVID-19) from 10 Downing Street in London. PA Photo

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has eloquently laid out his vision for how he sees the country exiting from the coronavirus lockdown, but his speech was short on details, some of which may be made clearer soon.

In his television address last night Mr Johnson unveiled several broad but cautious steps to return the UK, however gingerly, to something approaching normality. They include freedom for people to exercise more and to travel more outside their homes, but maintaining social distancing.

More people are encouraged to go to work but if possible avoiding public transport, and primary schools may begin to reopen in June.

While Mr Johnson's televised address gave the impression that he was talking to the entire UK, as the Queen did on April 5 (an impression the Prime Minister will not have minded), in reality he was speaking to England.

The other three home nations have their own emphases, and while only the most profligate gambler would bet against First Minister Arlene Foster taking her lead from London - particularly since it became such a depressing bone of contention with Sinn Fein - it is clear that fundamental differences are emerging.

The Prime Minister's new mantra - 'Stay Alert. Control The Virus. Save Lives' - is a significant departure from its predecessor with its emphasis on 'Stay Home', which the three other home nations are retaining. Indeed, the new Westminster message has already been criticised by the Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

Significantly, the devolved administrations in Belfast, Edinburgh and Cardiff have all extended their lockdown by three weeks until May 28, and this may have helped to stay Mr Johnson's hand from deciding on a more extensive relaxation of the regulations.

In fact Mrs Foster had already hinted that the different regions might exit lockdown at different speeds depending on the R (for reproduction) rate of the spread of the virus. So long as the R value is below one, the number of daily cases should continue to fall. The R rate here is currently between 0.8 and 0.9, and in England it is between 0.5 and 0.9.

Proposals for an alert system for tracking the virus, as announced by Mr Johnson, have met with scepticism in some quarters here. However, no fair-minded person underestimates the scale of the task he faces as he tries to balance the need for public health and safety with kick-starting a moribund economy.

If the crisis is costing us £1.3 billion per month in lost productivity here, the UK figures will be many multiples of that, but Mrs Foster is right to underline that public safety trumps all other considerations.

The Spanish flu epidemic from 1918-20 which claimed 20,000 lives in Ireland and well over 200,000 in Britain was unremitting and deadly, precisely because infection levels rose in three waves.

Given our far greater knowledge of how viruses spread, there can be no excuse for risking a second wave of Covid-19.

Unfortunately, the photographs of some Belfast people blatantly flouting social-distancing rules at the weekend can give no one any confidence that the Government's message (now mixed) is getting through sufficiently.

Two months ago no one could have predicted the potentially life-ending consequences of substituting the 'Stay Home' message for 'Stay Alert', but such are the frightening times in which we live.

Clearly we all have a very long way to go.

Belfast Telegraph