This week the UK has had some of its worst rates so far in its battle with the Coronavirus. The number of patients in hospital now stands at over 32,000, and the country has also seen its highest daily toll of 1,325 deaths.
The NHS has now reached the “most dangerous time” in its history according to Chris Whitty, England’s Chief Medical Officer, with firefighters having to help London ambulances respond to emergency calls. Just anecdotally, it seems there’s much more footage of nurses and doctors on our TV screens compared to during the first wave, speaking out about how dire the situation is.
In answer to this, the Government has escalated its Coronavirus measures and launched a public awareness campaign to encourage people to comply with the latest lockdown rules. Whitty has been doing the media rounds to get the message out; over the weekend he wrote for The Sunday Times of the “material risk of our healthcare services being overwhelmed within 21 days” without intervention, and he has also taken part in a TV advert asking people to stay at home.
Nadhim Zahawi has also been on the television, asking people to behave in the coming weeks, and at today’s 5pm’s press conference Matt Hancock drove home the message that it’s “Your actions now that make a difference”, encouraging the nation to “follow the rules”. Ministers clearly hope that if they say it enough the public will start to comply. But there are signs that this will not be the case.
Paradoxically, as the crisis reaches its worst stage – with a mutant strain of Coronavirus and the NHS clearly about to reach breaking point – people are getting more relaxed about their own, and others’, safety.
One piece of data that indicates this comes from Citymapper, a transport app, which tracks how much people walk, cycle, or take taxis in London, Manchester and Birmingham. In the first lockdown, mobility fell to less than 10 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, and now it has fallen to just under 20 per cent. There have been other signs of falling compliance, such as the below:
Transport for London data suggest Lockdown 3 is not having the same impact as the original. Tube use at 18% this morning (compared with roughly 5% last April); bus use at 30% (18%); road traffic at 76% (30-40%). That's a LOT more people ignoring #StayHome
— Jason Groves (@JasonGroves1) January 8, 2021
What does this mean for the Government? Boris Johnson has never wanted to use draconian measures, hence why he was one of the last leaders in Europe to order a lockdown in the first outbreak.
At various points in the crisis the Government has tried to resist strengthening restrictions or adding any more rules to those we now live with. Michael Gove, for instance, previously said face masks in shops should not be made compulsory in England, only for this to eventually happen.
As complaints about how the Government has managed this crisis grow louder – as they are now – it almost always adds a harsher measure.
Given the ferocity of the second wave, it wouldn’t be surprising at all if ministers go further, especially after Johnson said today “if we need to tighten [the rules] we will.”
It has also been reported that Cressida Dick, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, recently took part in a meeting of the Covid O committee, which sets new measures, indicating a growing requirement for more policing.
But where could the Government tighten restrictions? This is perhaps a more pertinent question than if it will do this in the first place.
One suggestion has been outdoor exercise, which people are currently allowed to do with another person under the guidelines. That could come to an end.
Another idea could be scrapping support bubbles, although the Government has apparently ruled this out. No doubt it would be an extremely unpopular move given the misery single households have faced under lockdown.
Keir Starmer has also said nurseries being opened “needs to be looked at”.
Scrapping support bubbles is “categorically not going to happen”, a No10 source tells me. I know lots of people were worried about this, so some reassurance there.
— Ben Kentish (@BenKentish) January 11, 2021
Many of the decisions will no doubt depend on data about how the virus spreads. It would make sense to see tighter regulations in supermarkets, for example, as Public Health England identified them as one of the most frequent exposure settings for those catching Coronavirus.
The Government has, at least, given itself leeway to move the current restrictions, as well as laying the foundations (media messaging) for harsher measures – a common tendency in this crisis – so that the public will be prepared.
What happens if even stronger restrictions don’t work is a question for another day…