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29 July 2020

Why Oldham’s semi-lockdown is a high-stakes test for Boris Johnson

Can the government fix the weaknesses in its pandemic messaging?

By Stephen Bush

Meetings between households have been prohibited in Oldham in the wake of a concerning spike of fresh cases of coronavirus, as speculation mounts that more countries will be added to the list of places where you must self-isolate after visiting. 

Oldham’s semi-lockdown will be a high-stakes test of whether the government has been able to fix a weakness in its coronavirus messaging and strategy that became evident when various community newspapers began to struggle financially: the government struggles to communicate its messages to hard-to-reach communities, and, indeed, to casual audiences in general. 

If you read a morning newsletter, you will have picked up what the new measures in Oldham are. If you get your news intermittently from music radio or Facebook, you might well not. 

That speaks to one of the government’s problems: that neither it, nor local authorities, which have borne the heaviest load as far as the cuts of the past decade are concerned, are well-placed to communicate or enforce nuanced local lockdowns. Further, our patchy welfare state, particularly the uneven provision of sick pay, make it unlikely that everyone who ought to follow tougher lockdown rules will be able to do so. 

That reality is why Boris Johnson’s fear, reported in today’s Mail, that the UK could be header for another major spike in infections in a fortnight’s time, could well be right. 

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As we are seeing across the world, the virus hasn’t gone away and the economic objectives of reopening can’t, at present, be reconciled with the public health objectives of containment. Equally importantly, the fear of the virus continues to exert a heavy pressure on discretionary spending across the United Kingdom and, indeed, the world. 

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The government is caught in a Catch-22: if it can’t communicate the substance of its local lockdowns well, there will be a second spike. But if it can, people well outside the reach of a local lockdown will decide not to risk their health on a trip for an indifferent sandwich or to a chain pub.