Masks in Berlin U-Bahn, 26 Apr 20Image copyright
AFP

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A vending machine for masks in a Berlin U-Bahn (underground) station

Across the world, countries are embarking on enormous experiments in ending coronavirus lockdown measures – and others are looking on nervously, asking themselves what’s the best way back to normality.

There’s no international consensus over how best to do it – but we’ve looked at the key trends that are emerging, and some of the innovative thinking leading the way.

Easy does it – but only if it works

The big trend around the world is to ease lockdown gradually. Many will be closely watching what happens in hard-hit Italy. Rome has set out a phased approach about how everything from shops to museums may be able to open with the most significant opening up yet due on 4 May.

All Italians – particularly those in the areas with highest infection rates – know they won’t see anything approaching normal life before September.

Dr Michael Tildesley, an expert in infectious diseases at Warwick University, says the world just doesn’t know what will happen to the rate of coronavirus transmission as lockdowns ease.

“It’s really difficult to untangle the relative effectiveness of all the lockdown measures to work out what effect each of them has,” he told BBC Radio 4’s The Briefing Room. “It may be that the only way we can do that – and get a real understanding – is when we start to relax them. We may have to lift a certain measure and monitor what that does to the epidemic.”

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CATHERINE LAI

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Singapore app: Low take-up which other countries hope to improve on

Technology to track, trace and test

The second more important step appears to be the roll-out of smartphone apps to track infections. More and more nations – or at least those that can afford it – are designing apps for their population.

Some – such as Australia’s operational app, and proposed solutions in Italy, France and the UK – will see phones gather anonymised records of other phones the user has been close to. If someone develops symptoms, each phone in that log of potential contacts will receive an alert. In Israel, the government went straight to one of its secret services and asked it to track phones to, in turn, track likely transmissions.

South Korea used phones from the outset, to contact anyone who was near to someone who tested positive. The government there relied on this aggressive strategy of testing and alerting to avoid a complete lockdown.

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Thermal cameras: First used in Hong Kong during the 2003 Sars outbreak

Watch for the temperature

Thermal cameras could soon have a crucial role, particularly in transport hubs. During the 2003 Sars outbreak, anyone who travelled through Hong Kong airport had to stand in a queue while an official pointed a heat gun at their head to discover if they had the tell-tale temperature of a fever.

A smarter thermal camera is now being tested at Bournemouth Airport in the UK to see how quickly it could spot potential coronavirus carriers.

Find out more

Listen to The Briefing Room – available now on BBC Sounds.

Experts explain how lockdowns could be lifted around the world – and why we don’t know what will happen next.

Virtual personal exclusion zones

Some nations looked at wristbands to enforce lockdown – but the Belgian port of Antwerp is testing whether this technology can help let people go about their business.

Workers there wear wristbands that aim to reduce accidents. They vibrate as a vehicle approaches and raise the alarm if someone falls into water. Romware, the company behind this safety system, has modified the sportswatch-like wristband so that it buzzes if workers who may be too busy to notice each other inadvertently become too close.

Social bubbles

New Zealand is emerging from one of the toughest and most successful lockdowns in the world with a national “social bubble” plan.

Each household is a bubble. Citizens can now expand their bubble by inviting up to two specific additional people into it who, ideally, live close by. In other words, two bubbles bump together and become one. Social contact increases in a controlled way: grandparents see family, singletons can meet up instead of being home alone.

If any of them want a coffee, Kiwis have come up with innovative non-contact ways of buying their flat whites:

Vending machines vs virus

As lockdown eases, one of the worst possible outcomes could be long queues in pharmacies for face masks – increasingly the likelihood of accidental spreading while people wait to buy them. Germany, Taiwan and Poland are among countries that have seen face mask vending machines pop up in cities to help ease the pressure.

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Sean Gallup

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Vilnius: Open spaces being handed to businesses (picture taken before launch of the initiative)

Taking a city al fresco

In Lithuania, cafes and bars have reopened – but only if they can serve customers sitting outside and ensure social distancing. That’s a huge problem in the capital, Vilnius, where narrow historic streets make distancing impossible.

So the mayor is handing 18 of the city’s historic public spaces to those hardest-hit businesses. Large parts of the city are going al fresco. There’s a public appeal to customers to help venues find furniture to make the sociable-but-social-distancing plan work.

“Buy, borrow, invite your loyal customers to help,” says the mayor’s office. “The municipality asks only one thing – maintain a high-quality visual appearance, don’t build cheap with poor-looking plastic furniture.”

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HEIKO JUNGE

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Distanced pupils: A re-opened school in Oslo

Staggered school days

Lots of teachers say social distancing can’t be done in schools. But Norway is giving it a try. Children are now arriving for school at staggered times to prevent overcrowding at the gates. Parents can’t come inside and mill around for a chat with friends.

Teachers then take the students and place them in small groups which, crucially, they must remain in – both for lessons and playtime – without variation.

Colour-coding communities

Iran is experimenting with a flexible approach that allows more freedom in areas that are the least affected. Towns and cities across the country are being graded white, yellow or red – and each of those designations indicates the level of infections and deaths – and what level of easing each community should expect.

The more places that are coded white based on the local health data, the more freedom there will be.

While Italy isn’t using a colour-code system, residents in the most severely affected communities in northern Italy are expecting their lockdown to continue longer than others in the nation.

These techniques link to the all-important “R” number – the mathematical model of how fast of slow the virus is spreading.

Passport to freedom?

China, on the other hand, has decided to colour-code people rather than places – the first nation effectively to license people to go about freely.

A month ago it rolled out a health status smartphone app. In the coronavirus epicentre of Wuhan, residents must show their status to use public transport. If they’re green, they’re healthy and good to go. If they’re red, they should be in isolation as a known sufferer of Covid-19.

Aside from privacy issues that would be a major factor in Europe, critics say there is no guarantee the health status will be accurate when it’s checked by an official. Those kinds of concerns have played into a World Health Organisation recommendation to all governments not to issue “immunity passports”.

Chile has nevertheless said it will introduce a “certificate” system. Ministers said the document would confirm whether or not someone had been infected and recovered after a period of isolation.

The bigger picture

All these novel schemes, and many more, may help a return to some form of normality. But Ngaire Woods, professor of global economic governance at Oxford University, says easing lockdown requires us all to rethink our lives.

“We have got to get testing tracing and isolating up and running fantastically well,” she told Radio 4’s Briefing Room. “We have to start thinking about preventative measures in public spaces and schools. We have got to manage the import of cases – so think about travel restrictions. That’s a clear checklist in order to safely start lifting the lockdown.”

Prof Woods says thinking will have to go far beyond just re-opening closed-down businesses. We may need to split workforces by age group – an example could be that older teachers must take their classes by video link.

“Those are the questions we have to ask – they are not insurmountable problems. The alternative is to stay in a total lockdown.”



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