A new month-long lockdown is now in force – only a week or so after Boris Johnson said a second one would have “disastrous consequences”. He changed his tune after being presented with evidence by his scientific advisers. They told him if he did not do it the pandemic would spiral out of control producing even more dire consequences than Britain faced in the first wave. The Labour opposition backs the lockdown but its leader, Sir Keir Starmer, accused the Prime Minister of inflicting unnecessary harm on the British people and on the economy by not doing it earlier. Starmer had called for a two-week ‘circuit breaker’ over the school half term. And more than thirty Conservative backbench MPs rebelled on Wednesday in a vote on the new lockdown. They said it constituted an arbitrary and authoritarian curtailment of personal freedom and would anyway prove to be ineffective. Whoe side are you on and will you stick to the new rules?
Boris Johnson has always been determined, if at all possible, to avoid a second national lockdown. The economic toll of the first was so great that he believed the country couldn’t sustain another. And as the sort of Tory who believes governments should constrain personal freedom as little as possible, he didn’t want, once again, to have to tell people what they could and couldn’t do. So instead, he decided to rely on a local approach. His ‘tier’ system introduced less than a month ago, was tailored to tackle different infection rates in different parts of the country.
He did this in the teeth of advice from his scientific advisers on the ‘Sage’ committee who, at the end of September, recommended a national two-week lockdown. That’s what Starmer wanted to happen. As recently as the end of last week Johnson was defending his approach and ridiculing stronger nationwide meaures.
The subsequent U-turn was sparked by a sobering meeting between senior ministers and the government’s two leading advisers, the chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, and the chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, at Downing Street on Friday afternoon. The advisers produced evidence which they said showed the pandemic ‘running out of control’, with the rate of expansion of infection at a pace far higher than even the ‘reasonable worst-case scenario’ forecast just a few weeks ago. There was potential, according to their models of the pandemic, for the death rate over the winter to be at least twice as high as it had been at the peak of the first wave: one study had suggested the death rate could reach almost 4,000 a day by early December (compared with 1,000 during the worst days of the first wave). Inevitably, the NHS would be overwhelmed by such an upsurge in cases. Urgent action was needed now to avoid such an outcome.
The Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, who had been in the vanguard of those ministers resisting any nationwide lockdown because of the damage it would cause to jobs, businesses and the government’s finances, acquiesced in the decision to make the abrupt change of tack. And Johnson announced the changes in a statement on Saturday.
The new measures require everyone to stay at home unless they need to go out to work, to shop for essentials or to take exercise. There can be no meeting between households either indoors or in private gardens except in the case of those forming support bubbles. Pubs and restaurants must close except for takeaway service and all non-essential shops, hair salons, leisure and entertainment venues must shut down for the month. Schools and universities will remain open (unlike last time) and there won’t be any limit this time round on how often people can go out to take exercise, and individual members of two households can meet each other outdoors.
So although the new restrictions are not as draconian as those introduced back in March, they do involve a close-down of much of the economy. Mr Sunak was duly forced to change, for the umpteenth time, his measures to relieve the economic hardship caused by the pandemic, reintroducing the expensive furlough scheme to pay the bulk of the wages of those forced not to work.
Sir Keir’s objection was that these month-long restrictions need not have been as onerous and expensive if the government had followed the advice of its advisers back in September and imposed a fortnight’s circuit break. But we were now where we were and Labour would back these measure as necessary in the new circumstances.
Not everyone, however, is persuaded of either the necessity or the effectiveness of the new measures. Many business people, especially among small businesses, are seething with anger at the sudden U-turn. They protest that they have spent huge sums of money adapting their workplaces and shops to minimise the risk of infection only to be told to close down entirely. Many claim that they may never reopen.
The greatest scepticism has been on the Conservative backbenches. The leader of Tory backbench MPs, Sir Graham Brady, said at the weekend: ‘The original lockdown in March is something that I and many others accepted on the basis that it was a temporary, one-off measure for a defined period of time intended to prevent NHS critical care from being overwhelmed. A continuing cycle of lockdowns is another matter. Repeating the exercise is implicit proof that it didn’t work first time round. We also know that what was planned as a three-week lockdown turned into a three-month closure of society and the economy. We should be wary of letting that happen again.’
His concerns were deepened when the senior Cabinet Officer minister, Michael Gove, said that although it was planned that the new lockdown would end on 2 December, the government left itself with the option of extending it should it think the circumstances then dictated it. The Prime Minister hurriedly corrected this by saying the lockdown would end ‘by law’ on that date, while adding that he would be ready to come back to Parliament for further measures then if necessary.
It was in this context that MPs debated the new lockdown on Wednesday. Thirty-four Conservative MPs, including Sir Graham, voted against the government. Mr Johnson’s predecessor as prime minister, Theresa May, abstained. She accused him of ‘choosing data to fit the policy’ rather than the other way round, arguing that the pandemic was more under control than he claimed. ‘The evidence is, from Liverpool,’ she said, ‘that cases are falling’. (Liverpool has been under tougher measures for some time.) Others have pointed out that neither the death rate nor the number of daily new infections is running at anything like the levels some scientific models predicted.
To those like Sir Graham who fear this second lockdown could simply be the next in a long line (and this one timed, cynics say, so that it can be lifted over Christmas and then re-introduced afterwards) the government has no obvious answer, for the simple reason that it does not know how the pandemic will develop. Its hope is that eventually there will be a vaccine that allows us to live with the virus without having to close down the economy and have curbs on our freedom imposed on us by the government. But no-one knows when that will happen – assuming it ever does. In the nearer future, it hopes it might be able to introduce some sort of mass-testing which would facilitate the imposition of less onerous restrictions as each wave of the pandemic strikes. A pilot of such testing is currently being carried out in Liverpool.
Whether thje lockdown itself makes sense is one issue. There is a separate question of whether the restrictions themselves make sense. Inevitably people are quick to point out apparent anomalies: that young tennis players can play at school but not on public tennis courts; that friends can meet in the park but not in each other’s gardens and so on. During the first lockdown, people were generally accepting of such oddities since it was all a sudden emergency and rules had to be cobbled together at speed. This time, however, they may be less tolerant and more ready to break the rules if they think them silly. There’s anecdotal evidence that small businesses, with their whole livelihoods at stake, may be less compliant and even prepared to risk hefty fines by defying the rules.
Individuals may feel the same. Some people argue that the repeated imposition of restrictions is not just an unwarranted curb on our freedoms but amounts to treating us like children. We’re adults, aren’t we, they say: we now know much more what the virus is all about than we did first time round, so shouldn’t we be left to make our own risk assessments and take our own decisions, rather than have government take them for us? If I think it’s better all round if I call in on my granny to give her a hug, shouldn’t I be able to do so: what business it is of the government to tell me I can’t?
So as we start this month of new lockdown several questions face us. Are we persuaded that it is necessary? Do we think it will be effective? What might the alternative be? How reasonable to do the new rules seem? Is it right that the government should be so prescriptive on what I can and cannot do, or should I left to use my own judgement? Are we being infantilised, or is all this necessary for the greater good?
Let us know what your answers are.