Thursday, October 29, 2020
Health

The Guardian view on calls for a second lockdown: yes, prime minister | Editorial | Opinion

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In the weeks after Boris Johnson made his lockdown television address on 23 March, and as the UK’s infection and death rates rose shockingly higher, it was widely recognised that ministers had acted too slowly, and that the pandemic’s severity might have been lessened had they grasped the nettle sooner. Many ordinary people – perhaps especially those predisposed, like their prime minister, to look on the bright side – felt they had learned a hard lesson in the spring. Sometimes it pays to expect the worst.

Yet here we are, after an appalling few months in which the UK topped European league tables of excess deaths. And with new infections running at 14,000 a day and hospital admissions and deaths once again climbing, there is no reason to believe that the government will avoid the same errors. Papers released on Monday night showed that on 21 September, ministers rejected a call by its Sage committee of scientific experts for a two-week “circuit breaker” lockdown to slow the virus’s transmission. That this was not disclosed until after Mr Johnson announced the new three-tier system suggests that he did not want to explain why.

No one would deny that balancing the costs and benefits of national versus local measures is a complicated business. Perhaps the most obvious advantage of one rule for everyone is its simplicity. Arguably, the sense of being “in it together” from March onwards also made a positive difference in terms of people’s sense of wellbeing, their willingness to tolerate hardship and offer help and appreciation to others.

As this column has pointed out before, the pandemic poses particular challenges for a country as centralised as ours. If the cities of Manchester or Liverpool were less reliant on ministerial fiats and had, for example, taken responsibility from the start for their own test, trace and isolate programmes, the painful variation in the national picture might now be easier to tolerate. Instead, the overly small in-group that surrounds the prime minister has been even more high-handed in its treatment of local leaders than it has with the devolved administrations. Widespread fury, as well as confusion, at unequal treatment is the predictable result.

Such feelings are lent additional force by the fact that the hardest-hit places are already under colossal pressure from a combination of health and economic factors. New figures showing a jump in the unemployment rate from 4.1% to 4.5% – representing 1.5 million people out of work – are just the latest of many worrying signs, with workers aged 16-24 among the worst affected.

Against this grim backdrop, the government’s failure to make good use of the respite provided by the summer deserves to be judged harshly. The colossal waste of the failing test-and-trace system, said by Sage advisers to be having only a “marginal” effect on the virus’s rate of transmission, is a national disgrace. All the more so, since it is the only possible means by which Conservative ambitions to keep the economy open might have been fulfilled.

Trust, as we have repeatedly stressed, is of the essence. By choosing to break away from its own scientific advisers, the government has ramped up the pressure another notch. But rather than rise to the occasion, the prime minister looked on Monday like a rabbit in headlights. Less than 24 hours later, Sir Keir Starmer offered Labour’s response: in the absence of what he called a “credible plan”, the government should change course and follow Sage’s advice. We agree. With the government’s track record as poor as this, it would be hard not to.



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