As scenes of Liverpool’s revellers crowding the city centre dominate the news, the city is now waking up with a collective hangover as the subject of the UK’s first tier three lockdown. Meanwhile, Northern Ireland has announced it will operate a four week ‘circuit breaker’ closing pubs, schools, and restaurants as well as banning overnight stays. It will however allow shops, places of worship, takeaways, and gyms to remain open. Opposition parties both in the UK and the Republic of Ireland are calling for similar moves. Whether this will be enacted remains uncertain. As the pandemic has unfolded it has developed its own ever-expanding lexicon, with lockdown tiers, Covid curfews, support bubbles, and circuit breakers now common parlance. But is the ballooning and increasingly convoluted set of rules the right approach to stem the tide of the pandemic?
English governmental policy for the moment seems firmly set on targeted local lockdowns, with Health Secretary Matthew Hancock announcing that London and Essex will now be moved to tier two restrictions. For millions of Londoners this will mean not meeting those outside their household or bubble, whether at home or in a public place. According to guidelines, they should also attempt to reduce the number of journeys they are taking and walk or cycle where possible. All of this is now depressingly familiar, as the solemn milestone of 200 days of lockdown and restrictions has come and gone.
Like many measures the government has recently imposed, the law of unintended consequences is in clear evidence. 10PM curfews have been roundly criticised by business leaders and members of the opposition for lacking a scientific basis, as well as for creating crowds rather than controlling them. Likewise, tying government funding to whether an area has a tier two or tier three lockdown has raised eyebrows. Some have argued that for local authorities a harsher lockdown may be preferable as they receive £2 per head of population rather than £1, enabling them to help struggling businesses that will suffer under any restrictions regardless of whether they are tier one, two, or three.
The long-term sustainability of lockdown measures is now being called into question. Former Marks & Spencer chairman Stuart Rose recently opined that is high time we have a serious and adult discussion about the future of living with Coronavirus, which shows no signs of abating. The evidence on whether local lockdowns work remains disputed, and as time passes the stated aim of protecting the NHS from undue strain seem increasingly at odds with the tidal wave of cancelled operations and vital treatment referrals. Many are now facing up to a two year wait for routine surgeries, while for others it may already be too late as cancer referrals plummet.
This is to say nothing of the economic misery being inflicted on huge swathes of society. From job seekers, to small business owners, to nationwide household names, layoffs, pay cuts, delayed expansion and disrupted operations are now the norm. Chancellor Rishi Sunak has repeatedly stated that he cannot guarantee he will save every job, and he certainly will not. If a second national lockdown is enacted, it will be the death knell of thousands of businesses across the UK, and by extension it will wipe out potentially tens of thousands of jobs. The nation has a finite capacity to withstand the spanner that is currently being thrown in its economic gears, and it may be approaching a time when the cost of the government’s schemes are simply too high for the country to bear.
Naturally, we must continue to protect the vulnerable and elderly. In doing so, policy may be better informed by revolving around groups that require extra measures to protect them, as opposed to curtailing the freedoms of the whole population. This thinking may already be trickling into policy, but once again the implementation remains controversial. The government is seeking to create 500 ‘covid secure’ care homes where infected residents can safely self-isolate away from hospital. This has raised fears of another disastrous episode of the virus sweeping through care homes, resulting in a significant number of deaths.
At the heart of the issue of lockdowns is a need to balance civil liberties, economic considerations, and the overall health of the public against the threat presented by the virus both to the general populace and to the NHS’ capacity to cope. A growing number of voices across the political divide and from all walks of life are calling for a reconsideration of our current balance, and for a reset of current policy. It looks unlikely in the short term that this will happen, but as the country continues to face stark and difficult choices, a radical new approach may be needed to replace the increasingly arcane and inscrutable patchwork of rules and diktats.