Boris Johnson has announced that the national lockdown for England will end on 2 December, to be replaced by a regional three-tier system. Non-essential shops, hairdressers and gyms will reopen, and spectators will be allowed to return to sporting events. Pubs and bars will reopen in tiers one and two.
This decision is dangerously irresponsible. The latest national lockdown in England is not suppressing transmission quickly enough to allow for a safe return to a regional tier system. Data from the Office for National Statistics show that the total number of Covid cases in England actually rose during the first week of the ‘lockdown’ from 654,000 (1.2 percent of the population) to 665,000 (1.22 percent).
Daily new infections in England were 46,000 during week ending 31 October, the week before the second national lockdown began. Data released recently show that daily new infections for the week ending 12 November, when the lockdown was fully operational, only fell to 39,000. If this trend continues, then by the end of the lockdown we will still be seeing at least 21,000 new infections per day in England alone. There is no possibility that the existing Test and Trace system can cope with that level of daily new cases. Lifting the restrictions would therefore cause community transmission to resume its exponential growth.
Positivity rates (the proportion of the population that test positive for the disease in the community at any given point in time) continued to rise. This was the case in London (to 1.04 percent), the South East (0.86 percent), the South West (0.7 percent) and the East of England (0.68 percent) in the week ending 14 November, despite the national lockdown. If these regions are placed on a lower tier than the North West (2.02 percent), for example, we can expect their positivity rates to grow even more rapidly.
The picture in the other UK nations is better, but still not good enough. In Wales 18,400 people had Covid in the week ending 12 November, 0.61 percent of the population. The figures for the North of Ireland and for Scotland were 0.74 percent and 0.64 percent respectively. Nowhere in the UK can be considered safe from Covid.
For a number of reasons the English Government’s lockdown has not worked. To be effective all non-essential workplaces and all secondary schools, colleges and universities would need to close. The Independent SAGE group of scientists estimates that taking those measures would halve daily new infections every week. Even then, the lockdown would need to continue for at least five weeks to bring community transmission down sufficiently to allow partial restrictions, combined with a rebuilt and enhanced Find, Test, Trace, Isolate and Support system, to maintain the downward curve towards Zero Covid.
The National Education Union has called for all secondary schools to close during the current lockdown, and for a rota system to be introduced at the end of it so that class sizes could be halved. This is exactly the right approach and it should be fully supported.
The only way to make a lockdown work effectively is to ensure our incomes are protected. The state must fully compensate workers, including the self-employed, for loss of earnings due to measures taken to suppress the pandemic. Wherever workers are off sick, isolating, shielding, not working due to caring responsibilities, can’t work safely, or lose work due to the pandemic or action to control it, the government should guarantee 100 percent of their wages.
The UK Government has the power to do this. To do so would be to follow the advice given by mainstream economic institutions. For example, the International Monetary Fund has advised governments not to hold back when it comes to spending money to defeat the pandemic. This would be a far better use of taxpayers’ money than throwing untold billions at private corporations and consultancy firms that have delivered nothing but substandard services.
Some essential workplaces would of course continue to stay open during any lockdown. It is important that these workplaces are made as safe as possible, in accordance with the report on workplace safety published by the Hazards Campaign and Independent SAGE. Supermarkets, for example, are likely to get much busier as Christmas approaches. Public Health England has released data that show that supermarkets are second only to schools as locations for Covid transmission. Supermarket operators must introduce proven safety measures to protect their employees, for example by improving ventilation. This would in turn offer greater protection to shoppers.
The opportunity to introduce a circuit breaker around school half term was tragically missed. We must not make the same mistake again. School Christmas holidays should be brought forward to the beginning of December, and at the same time all non-essential workplaces should close. The government’s determination to have a ‘normal’ Christmas is not because they want us to enjoy peace and goodwill in the company of loved ones. They want to preserve the profit levels of the retail and pub giants which depend so much on Christmas consumer spending. They also want to minimise the damage they perceive it would do to their reputation. We remember Johnson’s announcement in July that under his plan ‘normality’ would be restored by Christmas.
A recent opinion poll showed that the UK public would prefer a locked-down Christmas instead of new January restrictions by a margin of 54 percent to 33 percent. The public has demonstrated a much firmer grasp of the measures needed to stem the virus than our government has. By acting collectively now to build a community response to this public health crisis, we could set ourselves firmly on the path towards Zero Covid, and look forward to a 2021 free of this terrible virus.