As readers of ConservativeHome may know, I am hardly the biggest fan of the Government’s 10pm curfew policy. I believe it will cause huge economic harm; has been based on a flawed model from Belgium, and is dispiriting for national morale. Last Saturday night, I added a new reason to my list of objections; it seems to me that the curfew is counterproductive – and could, inadvertently, harm public health.
That evening my friend and I had been in Soho at a smart, socially distanced bar before grabbing dinner nearby. At the restaurant, waiters frantically hurried about, conscious of the time. I don’t think I have ever seen someone sprint towards me with a glass of wine before, but there are firsts for everything in this crisis.
Coming up to 10pm, we were told that we had had to leave. We were in a lively part of town, and so this instruction suddenly meant tens of people getting up at the same time to go home. But that was nothing as I headed towards Oxford Street tube. The streets were heaving with people – similar to the photographs many of us have seen in newspapers of revellers convening in other parts of the country.
What troubled me wasn’t so much the crowds gathering outside (the virus spreads mostly indoors), but watching hundreds – maybe even thousands – of these souls then pour onto the tube, where they would inevitably be packed together in carriages.
Although I am quite relaxed about my own personal risk with Coronavirus, I decided to wait an hour before boarding the underground, taking photographs of the scene (one of which you’ll see above). It merely convinced me that the Government has indeed got this policy wrong.
The Coronavirus crisis is, of course, forcing MPs to make impossible decisions, for which – dare I say – I feel very sorry for them; it is a thankless task. Their scientific advisors have clearly told them about the dangers of bars; that one person can spark a big wave of infections, and that alcohol makes people more relaxed about social contact.
The curfews are in many ways a concession made to those who say it’s wrong to have pubs open at all, and maybe it’s the case that they work well in small towns, where one can walk back and forth to the local.
As a Londoner I can only speak for how it works here. It simply looked like the quickest way to accelerate the spread of the virus. It is an example when a theory sounds good – “close earlier and the virus can’t circulate” – but the practical reality is far messier.
I have seen other problems with the curfew, albeit simply walking around London. One is that people are starting their “evenings” much earlier. There are now groups of dressed up people in pubs and bars at midday. Revellers will find other ways around the curfew, too, standing outside pubs with plastic cups of wine long after closing time. The parties haven’t stopped, they’re simply moving elsewhere.
Some of this is no doubt because people’s tolerance for lockdown is starting to wane. For young people particularly, many of whom live in small homes, getting out for the evening is a strange type of stretching one’s legs. For people of all ages, bars and restaurants are a salvation at a time when life has become quite bleak.
My own, somewhat controversial theory – and not simply because I like nightlife, which I do – is that extending closing times would, paradoxically, provide a much better outcome than curfews. It would increase the range of times at which people come and go from bars. It makes people feel less pressured to head in at the same time. Perhaps venues could even allow people to book slots.
Unfortunately this idea would never get any traction. Part of the reason is that so much of our policies are based on replicating Europe; we decided the curfew was a good idea because Belgium had taken it on, and now Germany has done the same so the case for it will grow. I wonder if this is the right approach for any country with densely populated cities, not just ours. What I saw on Saturday night was not good.