Can Boris avoid a winter lockdown?

1 August 2020

9:00 AM

1 August 2020

9:00 AM

As the government struggled on Saturday with the question of whether to impose a quarantine on those returning from Spain, there was a hold-up: a key minister was unavailable. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps was on a holiday flight to Spain and hadn’t landed yet.

When Shapps eventually made it on to the Zoom call from his holiday villa, one person who sat in on the meeting was surprised by the speed at which the quarantine decision was made. After being stung by accusations that the government moved too slowly in its initial handling of the pandemic, Boris Johnson now wants to show it is moving quickly. The Spanish quarantine, which is more draconian than the approaches taken by France or Germany, shows the Prime Minister is prepared to enforce heavy restrictions with little warning, even if this means a backlash from business leaders and his own MPs.

With a spike in recorded infections in European countries such as Belgium and France, Johnson this week warned that ‘the signs of a second wave of the pandemic’ are there. But it’s not the prospect of having to extend the travel quarantine to other tourist hotspots that is giving the government great cause for concern — it’s the fear that the second wave could soon hit these shores.

Throughout the Covid crisis the government has been observing how other countries have dealt with the pandemic, looking for clues about what to do and what not. The spike in infections in southern states of the US was taken as a warning about opening up too quickly. But now that Germany, which adopted a more cautious approach about lifting lockdown and leads the way in testing, has also reported an uptick, some worry that any substantial easing risks a spike.

The Prime Minister began the summer with optimism and a desire to return to his domestic agenda. But ministers report that in recent weeks his concern has grown over the prospect of a second spike. Johnson has publicly downgraded his optimism for the country returning to normal. Two weeks ago he said he hoped the last remaining restrictions could be lifted by November. Now it’s the ‘middle of next year’. He has warned business leaders that there will be ‘more to come’ from the Covid crisis this year.

The timing of a second wave is a huge concern for Whitehall. One figure involved in the pandemic planning from the start is recalling the early warnings about the risks of too strict a lockdown with a sense of dread. Chief scientific officer Patrick Vallance suggested in March that clamping down too hard could see the virus return at the ‘wrong time’. ‘A winter crisis and a second wave together is almost unthinkable,’ a government adviser tells me.

Discussions are under way as to how best to respond to any surge in cases. The aim is to do all it takes to avoid a second national lockdown, which is viewed as catastrophic by the government. There are two main reasons for this. Firstly, lockdown measures would be harder to enforce in the winter. ‘It’s one thing asking the elderly to queue outside a supermarket in May, it’s another on a cold night in November,’ a minister tells me. Secondly, in the words of one government figure, it would spell ‘economic armageddon’.

Ministers have already started to consider their arguments in the event that some things have to close in order for others to open: the ‘schools or pubs dilemma’, as it is known in Whitehall. The public backlash over the failure to get children back in the classroom before summer means there is a sense in government that schools must be fully open in September, even at the cost of closing other things down. If schools aren’t back, ‘our core voters would not forgive us’, warns one minister. However, the large amount of social contact in and around secondary schools is a problem. In Israel, public health officials have blamed the decision to reopen schools in May for July’s spike in infections.

The two tools at the government’s disposal to prevent a second national closure are test-and-trace and local lockdown. In No. 10, hope is being placed on an increase in testing capacity — but with no contact tracing app still, there is only so much good it can do.

While polls suggest that the public broadly support Johnson’s whack-a-mole strategy of local lockdowns, MPs are sceptical about its long-term popularity. ‘It’s like public support for tax rises,’ says one Tory MP. ‘People say they back them because they don’t think they’ll be the ones paying. People support local lockdowns until they are the ones in it.’ He may have a point. Neil O’Brien, MP for Harborough in south Leicestershire, was initially very supportive of the government’s strategy. But that slowly changed as Leicester’s lockdown dragged on for nearly a month. A government loyalist, he has been reduced to adding #LetUsOut to his tweets.

A source of frustration among those affected by local lockdowns is that there are no objective criteria of what triggers — or maintains — local lockdown. In a recent meeting with a cross-party group of MPs, the Health Secretary and Dido Harding, head of test-and-trace, were insistent that there could be no one-size-fits-all set of guidelines as there are too many factors to consider.

However, without such clarity, MPs worry there will be local anger about why an area has been locked down. There is also a concern there could be community tensions if whole towns have been shut when the problem is only in certain neighbourhoods.

Places currently in local lockdown still have access to emergency economic relief. Despite this, local business owners can feel as though they face a severe disadvantage. ‘It will be even worse when the furlough scheme ends,’ predicts one MP. The Treasury is reluctant to come up with any general local lockdown relief packages on the grounds that there is no way of knowing how many times these measures would be required.

Of course, Johnson’s great hope remains that the structures in place work, that more lockdown scenarios do not come to pass and the virus remains under control. But if this happens, the UK would be an outlier in success. After a difficult four months in which Britain has lagged behind other countries, it is perhaps understandable that there is not much optimism across government.

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Katy Balls and the former health secretary Jeremy Hunt on a possible second wave.

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