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18 September 2020

A second UK lockdown is likely – but will it work?

Testing is just one part of a three-part problem – the ability to contact-trace and to isolate new cases is just as important. 

By Stephen Bush

Lancashire is set to be the latest part of the country to come under renewed lockdown provisions, as various media outlets report that the government is considering a two-week “circuit break’‘ nationwide lockdown, in which bars, restaurants and other social activities would be curtailed in a bid to halt the rise in infections, while schools and workplaces remain open.

The prospect of a second national lockdown – and the reality that for many people across the United Kingdom, they are already in a second lockdown of one kind or another – exposes two big problems coming down the track.

The first is that many workers can’t access statutory sick pay and that for many more, it simply isn’t enough for them to voluntarily self-isolate. If people have to choose between staying at home when they have only mild symptoms – when, for example, all that has happened is that they have lost their sense of smell – and missing out on a salary they can’t afford to lose, they will, of course, go out to work.

The second part of the puzzle is the looming end of the furlough scheme, in which the United Kingdom is an outlier compared to the rest of the continent and indeed most of the world’s advanced economies. With the exceptions of countries such as the United States, which opted to use unemployment benefit rather than income protection schemes, many countries that implemented a furlough-type policy have extended it. Germany and France have extended their schemes until at least the end of next year. Yet as it stands, the UK’s furlough scheme is set to stop at the end of October. If you have either continuing regional lockdowns or a new national lockdown, however brief, that will mean job losses, and as it stands a large and painful fall in people’s incomes.

Elsewhere, the Telegraph reports that the government is planning to outsource its struggling test and trace system to a delivery giant such as DHL or Amazon. Outside of the Department of Work and Pensions, Whitehall does very little that is genuinely end-to-end: the last mile is generally delivered by someone else, whether it’s a local authority, a GP’s surgery, a school or a hospital. So as far as the logistical challenge of delivering at-home tests, it makes sense for the government to seek outside help.

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But testing is just one part of a three-part problem – the ability to contact-trace and to isolate new cases is just as important. As we’re seeing in Oldham, the only bodies in British society and business with the necessary know-how to take this on are local authorities, as cash-strapped as they are. As for our ability to quarantine and isolate new cases: well, we’ve never really tried that one.

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All of which has us heading towards something that looks, in fact whether in law, to be a second lockdown, but one where we can’t even say that the government has attempted to have an honest and transparent audit of what it got right and what it got wrong during the last one – and no guarantee that we will use our “circuit-break” any more effectively than we did the first lockdown.