On Thursday night, Britain’s restaurants and pubs emptied an hour early, to a chorus of protests from some of the inconvenienced revellers, alarm from the beleaguered hospitality industry and fury from many media commentators. The curfew is one of the additional restrictions imposed by the governments in Westminster, Wales and Scotland last week as Covid-19 infections continue to rise. Despite the concerns the move raised, on the brink of a second wave of coronavirus, the urgent question facing Britain is whether these restrictions go far and fast enough?
The question has polarised political – and, to a lesser extent, scientific – opinion. There are echoes of mid-March, when many scientists were criticising the government for being too slow to act. But we should in theory be better poised to deal with a second wave: we know more about how the disease spreads; Boris Johnson’s government has had months to set up a test, track and trace infrastructure; the NHS has had time to prepare a strategy to keep elective treatment going; mask-wearing is much more prevalent.
The balance of scientific opinion is that the government is, again, acting too slowly to lessen risky social contact. Many scientists, including some of those on the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), have expressed scepticism that the 10pm curfew and encouraging people to work from home will much reduce the spread of infection. Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, agrees: she has introduced tougher restrictions in Scotland, banning households mixing indoors in people’s homes and has made clear she would have gone further if she had been able to introduce more economic support.
Johnson appears to have again been swayed by backbench libertarians concerned about the economic impact of further restrictions and outliers among scientists who say there is no point in taking further steps and that shielding the most vulnerable is preferable. But the country does not face a dichotomous choice between laissez-faire and a three-month lockdown of the sort imposed between March and May in which even elective NHS treatment was cancelled.
We know from the first wave that it is impossible to shield vulnerable people while the virus is spreading unchecked
Imposing tougher restrictions on certain types of contact, such as household mingling, will make other types of necessary social contact safer, such as non-Covid-19 treatment in the NHS or school attendance. We know from the first wave of the infection that it is impossible to shield older and vulnerable people who need care while the virus is spreading unchecked and we are only just learning about the debilitating impacts of long Covid. And considering both economic cost and mental health, it would be better to take tougher action now rather than leave it too late and end up in a situation where the government is forced to impose a full lockdown in a few weeks’ time.
The risk of this is compounded by the sheer incompetence and abject lack of strategy at the heart of Johnson’s government. Studies suggest that targeted testing combined with effective track and trace can reduce the rate at which the virus spreads by up to 26%; the next fortnight is a critical window during which track and trace can reduce the spread before infection rates are too high for it to make much difference. Yet despite Britain testing at higher rates than many other countries, the testing system has been overwhelmed; there was no strategy to prioritise access to testing, while 90% of tests take more than 24 hours to return a result, which undermines the efficacy of track and trace. As a result of the government going for a “call centre” rather than “shoe leather” model of contact tracing, despite warnings from experts, contact rates are far too low. And at a time when the prime minister should be building the social solidarity that encourages compliance with self-isolation, he is divisively trying to shift the blame for rising infection rates to the public, particularly to young people, despite the mixed messaging over the summer that pushed people to do their bit by returning to the office and socialising in restaurants and bars.
It is the same story right across government. On the economy, the furlough scheme is coming to an end and its smaller-scale replacement, according to the Resolution Foundation, “will not significantly reduce the rise in unemployment”. The chancellor’s reluctance to target decent levels of support at the hardest-hit sectors means millions are likely to suffer months, if not years, of unemployment on paltry levels of benefit, with little support for retraining to help people adapt to the impending structural economic shifts. There will be a profound impact on intergenerational poverty; the lessons of previous recessions are simply being ignored in the hope that a recovery will magically materialise.
The government also continues to fail young people in this pandemic. Thousands of students are now self-isolating in box rooms in student halls. Many of them are 17- and 18-year-olds away from home for the first time, who, understandably, feel aggrieved that they were encouraged to move to campus to start their courses when much of their teaching is online only and their social activities are so restricted. This was entirely predictable, given the lack of mass regular testing at many universities. Yet the government failed to produce a national strategy for universities, despite the warnings from Sage that they would develop into transmission hotbeds, presumably to avoid incurring any costs associated with doing things differently.
We have always acknowledged that this pandemic is an extraordinary challenge: the toughest of tests for any government. Many aspects of the science remain uncertain; epidemiological modelling remains imperfect; there remain no easy choices. Yet, time and again, the government’s incompetence, indecisiveness and apparent indifference to the hardships this crisis is imposing mean Britain is condemned to bear a greater load than is necessary.