John Humphrys: The Second Wave, is the Government Uniting or Dividing the Country?

October 09, 2020, 8:32 AM GMT+0

There can now be little doubt that the long-predicted second wave of the Covid pandemic is well and truly underway. Next week the government is set to announce a new, three-tier system for introducing varyingly harsh extra restrictions depending on local conditions around the country. But it has been accused of governing by diktat, of failing properly to consult local leaders who ought to know best what is needed in their areas and, as a result, dividing the country at a time when unity is more important than ever. Is this a fair criticism, or does the fact that the pandemic is gaining new momentum in rapid and unpredictable ways mean that the government has to take quick, unilateral decisions?

The evidence of the second wave now seems incontrovertible. The number of new recorded cases of infection is soaring in virtually every area of the United Kingdom, but in some far more sharply than in others. The number of hospital admissions is rising fast too. At the beginning of September there were under five hundred coronavirus inpatients in hospitals across England, but that number has now risen to nearly three thousand. In Greater Manchester, where the rise in cases has been among the highest, it’s estimated that by the end of this month there will be around 20,000 new cases of infection every day and that the number of new hospital admissions there will be running at well over two hundred a day, up from a mere seven at the end of last month. Hospitals in the region are already planning to cut back, once again, on routine care in order to handle the expected tsunami of Covid cases.

The government has seen this coming. That’s because second, third and even more waves are characteristic of the nature of pandemics, and the later waves are often worse than the first. But ministers have been determined to avoid a second national lockdown, following the one it imposed when the first wave broke. It believes a further national lockdown would be ruinous for the economy, with consequences not just for jobs, livelihoods and the state of the government’s own finances, but also for the economic foundations of the NHS itself. It wants to keep the economy functioning as fully as possible while trying to stop the pandemic from getting completely out of hand.

So its strategy is to introduce nationwide restrictions short of a full lockdown, in combination with additional local restrictions as and where they are needed. The nationwide restrictions include the ‘rule of six’, limiting the number of people from different households who can meet together, and the ten o’clock curfew – the time when pubs and restaurants must close their doors in the evening. And on Monday it is due to announce a new three-tier system for assessing local conditions and imposing extra restrictions accordingly. Details of this are not yet fully known but it’s thought that ‘Tier Two’ areas will further restrict the ability of people to meet in private dwellings and ‘Tier Three’ areas (the most severely affected by the pandemic) having, in addition, the temporary closure of pubs and restaurants imposed on them. The Scottish government has already announced this stringent measure for parts of central Scotland.

Whilst the more draconian full national lockdown, introduced for the first wave, enjoyed broad consensus, the new, lighter measures to deal with the second wave have almost all been controversial. The national ‘rule of six’ has been attacked by many, including a large number of backbench Tory MPs. Some object to it on libertarian grounds (it’s no business of a government, let alone a supposedly freedom-loving Conservative government, they protest, to be imposing laws telling citizens how many people they can invite into their own private homes). Others do so on grounds of incoherence (why should it be illegal for seven people to share a case of beer in a private home, yet for the same seven to be able to meet and share a round in a pub?). The ten o’clock curfew has also drawn strong criticism. The Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, said at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday: ‘One question is now screaming out: is there a scientifc basis for the 10pm rule? The public deserve to know and parliament deserves to know.’ Behind his question lies the widespread feeling that the rule simply doesn’t make sense: boozers are just going to start their boozing earlier.

But it’s at local level that protest at the way central government has been handling the pandemic has been greatest. Some argue that the much worse revival of the virus in certain parts of the country, like the north west of England, is due to the premature lifting of the original national lockdown, a decision taken, it’s alleged, without due regard to the very different circumstances prevailing in different parts of the country at the time. Even one of its own backbenchers accused the government of this. Jake Berry, the MP for Rossendale and Darwen (in the Greater Manchester region and a constituency that has seen very high rates of infection) said this week: ‘the government has fallen into that fatal trap of making national decisions based on a London-centric view with London data’.

Now the government is being accused by local authority leaders around the country of imposing its new three-tier system (for determining potential need for greater local restrictions) without proper consultation. Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, tweeted on Thursday: ‘No discussion. No consultation. Millions of lives affected by Whitehall diktat. It is proving impossible to deal with this government.’ Mr Burnham cited the case of the government’s overnight closure of pubs in Bolton (an area of Greater Manchester) in response to a sudden spike in cases of Covid, without any consultation and leaving workers in the pubs suddenly without work and without any extra support to tide them over. He complained that although there had been discussions this week between the government and local government leaders such as him over the new proposed system, they seemed to have no bearing on what the government actually decided, since proposals that had not been discussed were suddenly ‘announced’ in the press as what the government was going to do. Nor, he said, had the government discussed what extra support it was prepared to provide to those local areas where harsher restrictions would be imposed.

In its defence, the government claims that it has tried to engage local authority leaders in discussions about future plans. And it is reported that next Monday’s announcement of the new three-tier system will involve a commitment for extra government support, tailored to the degree of new restriction imposed at each tier. But its chief defence is that the pandemic is fast-moving and unpredictable and so it is in the nature of things that a national government has to respond swiftly in order to keep on top of it. Consultation would be ideal but not always possible, the message seems to be.

Such a defence might have greater force, the government’s critics say, if its overall strategy were clearer. But they say it isn’t clear at all. Is the government trying to eradicate the virus – to ‘send it packing’, as Boris Johnson put it early on in the crisis? Or is it trying merely to suppress it as much as it can while it waits anxiously for an effective vaccine? Or is its aim to make the virus liveable-with – to allow the famous ‘herd immunity’ to develop so that most ordinarily healthy people can carry on with their daily lives largely as normal (saving the economy in the process) while only the very vulnerable are protected? The critics say the government has left us in the dark about its answer to this question. Indeed some claim the government doesn’t know the answer itself.

Meanwhile, the government’s measures, far from uniting the country as seemed to happen in its response to the first wave, are dividing us.

Is such criticism fair? What do you think about its nationwide measures, such as the ‘rule of six’ and the ten o’clock curfew: do they make sense to you or not? And what about local difference: do you think nationwide measures take sufficient account of differences on the ground around the country? Do you think local leaders, who should know more about what’s going on in their areas than London ever can, are being consulted enough or not? In general, do you think there should be tighter or lighter restrictions on our behaviour than seem likely to be imposed to tackle the second wave? And how optimisitc or pessimistic are you about how the country will fare as the second wave takes off?

Let us know your views.

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