How do we get out of lockdown? The five Cs of a realistic exit strategy

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By Professor Peter Hupe, Honorary Senior Research Fellow
School of Social Policy, University of Birmingham

In times of crisis, people tend to look upward. They expect that elected leaders will get them out of the crisis. In turn, political authorities and public officials tend to adopt a straightforwardly top-down approach when exercising control.

This ‘hierarchical reflex’ can be observed in the current coronavirus crisis. In just a few months, the Covid-19 virus has got a grip on the entire world. National governments have taken measures to control the spread of the virus and in most countries these measures mean a lockdown. Managing such a situation is quite a task, but managing to end it maybe even more difficult.

‘And the rest is implementation’

When a strategy has been decided, it is generally assumed that implementation will follow. But policy implementation is more than a technical matter. Most actors involved in policy processes do their work with good intentions. Having the right objectives, isn’t the same as realizing them. Given the importance of a successful exit from lockdown, the realistic implementation of a strategy requires explicit attention. As a rule of thumb the five Cs of realistic implementation can be useful here.


It is vital for political authorities and public officials to communicate as clearly as possible. While vagueness creates freedom, particularly in a crisis, clarity is demanded. Citizens must be able to read the political-administrative measures announced – like the need to social-distance – as instructions as unambiguous as possible. It may also be wise to acknowledge that political decisions made in a crisis like this can only have a limited evidence base. By clearly  acknowledging  the limited reach of expert knowledge but the inherent need to act, political decisions will be more widely accepted. Given the hierarchical reflex mentioned above, a message with such a character may make guidelines sooner accepted, but also measures people may be less enthusiastic about.

Coalitions and commitment

The ability to convey a policy or strategy decided upon, as a single and clear instruction is not given. After all, politics remains always involved. There may be different views in the Cabinet on what is to be done and  the advice from medical experts may vary. However, like taking measures towards a lockdown, also withdrawing these measures step by step comes down to  political-administrative decision-making.  Values, facts and forms of advice come together and are taken into account  through the structures of government and politics. This means that from all sides pressure will come on political decisions. Practising the balancing act needed to reach justifiable trade-offs between the different values and various interests at stake, is the essence of politics. It is the political authorities and public officials who have been granted the legitimate power to accomplish that task. This implies the need for them to keep acting beyond crisis management – as politicians. Managing a lockdown exit strategy means building and using coalitions. Enhancing the commitment and dedication of the most relevant stakeholders is vital – or at least reassurance of their passive support.

Capacity and craftsmanship

It goes without saying that citizens and corporations, but also co-governments, will comply with the exit strategy and actively support it sooner, when the necessary resources have been made available – when there is capacity. Mobilizing financial and other resources and granting them to those most in need, is a highly  political issue.

At the end of the day, all efforts made stand or fall with the craftsmanship demonstrated, particularly by the nurses, medical doctors, teachers and others as policy ‘implementers’ on the ground. In the present coronavirus crisis, the role of those so-called street-level bureaucrats has proven to be crucial for society. They and their colleagues have shown to be truly professionals in public service. This fact needs to be recognized, also when the crisis is over.

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