This lockdown comes at a high political cost

7 November 2020

9:00 AM

7 November 2020

9:00 AM

Keir Starmer has his first attack line of the next general election campaign. He will say that England’s second lockdown was longer than it needed to be because the Prime Minister didn’t act when he had the chance. If Boris Johnson had listened to the scientists, Labour will say, we’d have had a two week ‘circuit-breaker’ and controlled the virus. As things stand, a man who set his face against lockdown was then forced to adopt one — making it longer, more painful and costing far more jobs.

A couple of weeks ago, there was a clear dividing line: Labour wanted national measures; the Tories wanted regional ones. So Starmer can now claim to have won the argument. This has depressed Tory MPs. They resent the fact that they were busy piling into Starmer for wanting to, in Johnson’s own words, ‘turn the lights out’ — only to find themselves being asked to vote for policies which do just that. Trust in the basic competence of Downing Street has taken a knock.

One fairly new MP tells me that ‘trust between government and backbenchers is at an all-time low’. Even cabinet ministers admit that this episode has damaged relations between Downing Street and the parliamentary party. One tells me: ‘What
discombobulated people most is that we had such a clear line that people were comfortable with. Then it changed, very fast. The speed at which things shifted really threw people.’

There is particular frustration that the Tories laid into Starmer’s proposal so vigorously when a second lockdown was always a possibility. There is ‘no horizon scanning’ says one government veteran: ‘No one asking where this ends, no one saying, “Don’t box ourselves in”.’ There are fears the same mistake is being made when Johnson is insistent that the lockdown will end on 2 December. One secretary of state says: ‘You can’t guarantee that the lockdown will have had its effect by then. We’re making hostages to fortune by being so definitive.’

But the Prime Minister has to be adamant that the lockdown will end on 2 December to get it past his own MPs. If they think it may well last longer than a month then more of them will refuse to support the government — and Johnson doesn’t want to start having to rely on opposition votes to get his business through the Commons. After all, that never ends well for a prime minister. But the certainty he is offering has its own risks.

It is true that the polls show lockdown is backed by about three-quarters of voters – an unusually high level of support for any policy. Tory MPs, however, worry that this support is so high because the government has spent a great deal of money softening the blow. The second lockdown will finish off many businesses that only just made it through the first. The mental health toll — something very hard to gauge — will likely be higher this time around. The darkness, the winter weather and the heightened economic uncertainty will make it that much harder for people.

With his eye for a political opportunity, Nigel Farage is now planning to rebrand the Brexit party as an anti-lockdown party. It is telling that he has chosen to relaunch his political career on this basis, rather than on attacking any trade deal with the EU. What Farage has grasped is that this lockdown will become more unpopular the longer it goes on. Already, the public are less supportive than they were of the first one, and that’s before the unemployment surge has begun.

There is simply not the same sense of national solidarity that there was in March. People feel more able to object to individual measures than they did then; even the Church of England is protesting against the ban on religious services. As more people turn against the lockdown, Farage will be there to try to sweep them up. One problem he has, though, is that those most sceptical of the new restrictions are the young — not a group that he is known for appealing to.

The biggest danger for the government is that this lockdown turns out to be tactical, not strategic. The driving force behind it was the fear that the NHS would be overwhelmed otherwise. Johnson has indicated that if infection levels are falling on 2 December, he will deem his measures to have worked. But no one is arguing that lockdown does anything other than buy time. How, then, do you keep the virus shrinking even once restrictions are eased?

Downing Street had hoped test and trace would prevent the need for a second lockdown. The idea was that it would identify local outbreaks and stop them spreading. But it has proved an expensive disappointment. Despite £12 billion of funding, it is, according to Sage, having only a ‘marginal’ impact on transmission of the virus. Much of the problem is that case numbers are too high for the system to work effectively. The east Asian countries that have used contact tracing most successfully have done so with infection numbers far lower than in Europe now. This would suggest that the UK would need a lockdown of longer than a month if test and trace is to work afterwards.

But Johnson has been clear that the strategy now is to use mass testing to keep on top of the virus. The idea is that testing large numbers of the population allows you to pick up asymptomatic cases and break chains of transmissions. In Liverpool, the government is trying to test the entire city.

So often has the government boasted of a world-beating scheme that even ministers are sceptical of the hype. But if rapid testing can be expanded and people persuaded to self-isolate when they test positive, then it could succeed in keeping infections in check and give people confidence that the economy will remain open.

One of the Prime Minister’s strongest arguments against the circuit-breaker lockdown was that one would not be enough. When Sage initially proposed the plan, it admitted that a second could be needed later in the winter. This is what Johnson needs to avoid now. A third lockdown would test the patience of the public and his party to a quite dangerous extent.

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