Even the top level of the Government’s new three tier anti-Covid measures is less restrictive than were the terms of the national lockdown earlier this year. This reflects a sensible aim of Boris Johnson’s new strategy: to keep workplaces and schools open, thus protecting livelihoods as well as lives.
To date, this aspect of the plan is working. Most schools reopened last month and most haven’t closed. Non-essential retail, which was shut down during the national lockdown, will stay open even in places where the most severe level of curtailment applies.
There is hopeful news, too, about the virus itself. The Office for National Statistics most recent estimate of new cases in England was about 17,200 a day, compared to about a million a week last March. Five hundred and fifteen patients were admitted to hospital on Saturday. On April 1, that figure was 3099.
These figures will rise, as will death numbers, currently coming in at about 50 a day in the UK, compared to 1166 at the peak on April 27. However, the cental judgement must still be Raghib Ali’s, as set on on ConservativeHome last month.
This is that a repeat of the first wave is “very unlikely”, because social distancing, masks, handwashing and test-and-trace should lead to cases increasing more slowly, and that hospitalisations and deaths should be “significantly lower” due to the lower age profile of cases, better shielding and possibly a lower viral load.
This would explain why the Prime Minister warned yesterday that, in the event of an “uncontrolled second spike”, the NHS would not be able to devote itself to “other treatments”: cancer, heart disease, and so on. He did not suggest the prospect of Lombardy-style mass deaths in hospitals on trolleys in corridors, or at home without palliative care.
So far, so reassuring. But at this point the good news (or the less bad news) starts to wear very thin. There is no guarantee that the school or college system will hold up as winter deepens. Or that non-essential retail is safe. Or that lockdowns won’t intensify. Or that this latest iteration of the Government’s strategy will last for very long.
This brings us to the first of three baleful problems for the Prime Minister – and the rest of us. He announced the last tranche of measures, including the rule of six, as recently as September 9. One backbencher complained to this site that his local area has seen changes in restrictions since the start of the summer running into double figures.
It would be very hard to calculate the total number of such alterations carried out since March – let alone that of conflicting signals sent by Ministers (over, say, office returns, reporting rule-breakers, mask-wearing and much else). Or to measure the impact of the Prime Minister himself backing off dates by which he said the crisis may be over.
Nonetheless, it seems that the longer the Government keeps overhauling restrictions, the less likely voters are likely to heed them, if only because they can’t follow the changes in the first place. They may support lockdowns in theory, when responding to polls, but they may not in practice, in their everyday lives.
Furthermore, yesterday’s simplification of restrictions isn’t quite all it might seem. On Merseyside, for example, gyms, leisure centres, betting shops, casinos and adult gaming centres will close. This looks like the result of a back-and-forth negotiation between central Government and local leaders.
Such details are not included in the Government’s provisions for the highest level of restrictions, which refer to a “baseline” of prohibited social mixing in private premises and pubs and bars operating as restaurants. This takes us to Johnson’s second big problem.
The to-and-fro over the details of the Merseyside restrictions is part of a bigger picture. Local leaders are beginning to raise the standard of revolt against central diktat. Sometimes, these are Labour mayors, such as Andy Burnham in Manchester, calling for more powers, money and consultation.
At other times, these are Conservative council leaders, such as Bolton’s David Greenhalgh. Meanwhile, four senior Labour council leaders have rejected “economic lockdowns” altogether. Local Labour wants Tory local authorities included in area lockdowns. Conservative MPs want them excluded, arguing that their case rates are lower.
Ominously for Downing Street, Andy Street, who by character and temperament is a team player, is kicking up about the West Midlands being placed in the second tier – one down from Liverpool’s. Or at least about some of the details.
It may be that some local leaders would actually prefer their area to placed in the most restrictive tier, because that would open them up to more central government support. For clarity: Street is not among them. But his public break from the Government is a bad sign for Downing Street.
In short, the localist revolt appears to have spurred Ministers into devolving the test and trace plan more rapidly. The Commons yesterday was awash with praise for local government – and its superior capacity to deliver tracing in particular, compared to the lumbering central state or crony capitalist contractors.
As Charlotte Gill has pointed out on this site, evidence suggests that local contact tracing works relatively well. But this brings us to the Prime Minister’s third problem. There is little confidence among those who know their way round test and trace that the system will reach the 80 per cent of contacts it needs to be viable.
So a likely scenario as time passes is that contact tracing will improve in some places but not in others – and not most of them. This would be a disaster for the Government’s plan for lives, livelihoods, health and the economy, because test-and-trace is the strategic middle way between, crudely speaking, lockdowns and Sweden.
Ministers were right to try to make it work, after the initial flirtation with herd immunity. Test and trace is the model applied with relative success by Germany – 45th on deaths per head of population compared to Sweden’s eleventh, and a country more comparable to ours in size and scale.
If it doesn’t, however, the future for the Government is shaping up as follows. Cases, hospitalisations and deaths will rise, though not to the levels of the “first wave”. But, with test and trace not working as well as it needs to do, both local councils and Conservative backbenchers will become unruly.
The policy choice will also narrow down – in the absence of a vaccine, herd immunity (if it happens) or the virus simply burning itself out – to a repeated cycle of lockdowns and easings, with all the damage to livelihoods which these imply, or some form of “Sweden”, which applied now would mean fewer restrictions amidst rising death rates.
Chris Whitty and “the scientists” – that’s to say, the Government’s advisers – want the first. More Tory backbenchers will move over time towards the second. Local leaders will agitate; Keir Starmer will scheme. This is a picture of Johnson and his Government gradually losing what control over the politics of the virus they have.
Any fair-minded person would concede that Ministers have had successes as well as failures: Universal Credit, building up testing rapidly, the Nightingales. Other European governments are wrestling with a similar rise in cases. Conservative poll ratings remain buoyant.
That shouldn’t prevent one from recognising that Ministers are divided over what to do next, with the institutional instincts of the Treasury and the Health Department at odds, the Prime Minister trying to straddle the gap – and authority seeping away from Number Ten.