Will they or won’t they? Is the question being asked of MPs in regards to whether they will extend the current lockdown restrictions in England. Although these measures are due to expire on December 2, at yesterday’s press conference, Matt Hancock told the nation that it was “too early to know” if they had worked.
The Government’s post-lockdown plan is to return to the tiered system of lockdown. But even that could shift. At the same press conference as Hancock, Susan Hopkins of Public Health England, threw a spanner in the works when she said there had been “little effect from Tier 1”, and that the Government might have to “think about strengthening” tiers “to get us through the winter months until the vaccine is available for everyone.”
Despite some encouraging statistics about the nation’s battle with Covid – intensive care admissions have fallen, and hospitals are running at “normal capacity”, according to Carl Heneghan, a professor director of evidence-based medicine at Oxford University – there are signs the Government will play it safe when it comes to imposing more restrictions.
There was the fact that Rishi Sunak recently expanded the furlough scheme so that it will last until March. More recently, a newspaper printed emails from George Pascoe-Watson, Chairman of Portland Communications, who had been advising Dido Harding and James Bethell on strategy and communications, revealing he had been “been privately advised that tier 2 restrictions will be imposed on London until at least the spring of next year.”
In short, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to make the following prediction (contingent on hospitalisations being at a manageable level): the Government will phase out the lockdown (thereby keeping its promise and avoiding the difficulties of an extension being approved) but then move parts of the country into Tier 2, 3 or 4 (as has just been imposed on 11 local authorities in Scotland) – with the measures in place until spring. Therefore, many will be left feeling that they are in de facto lockdown.
One reason the Government might feel emboldened to keep restrictions going is the news of two vaccines, as well as the knowledge that mass testing is being rapidly developed. It’s far easier to ask people to “sit tight” if they know an exit strategy is on its way.
But one group that is going to present a big headache for the Government is the anti-lockdown Covid Recovery Group (CRG), whose members will vote on the next set of restrictions. The CRG has been steadily growing in numbers, now standing at around 70 members, according to reports. Depending on how much bigger this figure gets, and what restrictions the Government next wants to impose, it may have to increasingly call on Labour to get the voting numbers.
And it’s not only the idea of a national lockdown that the CRG is opposed to. Its members are also sceptical of softer restrictions; or, at least, they want them to be justified. Mark Harper, CRG chairman, has called some of the previous Covid-19 measures “arbitrary”, and the group is unlikely to ease off the pressure because of a vaccine. Steve Baker, its deputy chairman, has said that “we must find a more sustainable way of leading our lives until a vaccine is rolled out”. As far as the CRG is concerned, days, weeks and months are too long in terms of waiting for Pfizer to come to the rescue.
The group’s main demand is that the Government is more transparent with information on the cost of lockdown. It wants a full-cost benefit analysis of restrictions on a regional basis, and for the Government to publish the models that inform policies – so that members of the public can make up their own mind. In short, the CRG is trying to place the burden of proof onto the Government to explain why it’s imposing any restrictions – as opposed to MPs having to argue for them to come off.
As Harper tells me: “When the Government brings forward its proposals for what follows the lockdown, it’s incumbent on it to show that for every restriction it wants to put in place, the good done by the restriction outweighs the harm, both from a health perspective and an economic perspective.”
Given that December 2 is approaching the Christmas period, the pressure will be all the greater for the Government to explain the rationale for each set of restrictions, as even more closures for shops could signal their end. MPs will also be after more information for how the Government’s mass testing programmes are coming along – one of the main ways it can reopen the economy until the vaccine arrives.
Interestingly, the Government could be about to run into difficulties not so disimilar from the ones Angela Merkel has experienced in Germany. Merkel had wanted to tighten Germany’s restrictions, but failed to win the support of the country’s state leaders. Thus she has had to postpone decision making in this regard. In essence, just as the public support for lockdown might be tiring, so is MPs’.
Either way, the next couple of weeks will be interesting to say the least.
- Austria has imposed a second full lockdown after it recorded one of the highest per-capita rates of Covid in the world (7,000 daily cases on average last week).
- France has extended its national lockdown, which was due to end on December 2.