Almost two million people across Newcastle, Northumberland, North Tyneside, South Tyneside, Gateshead, County Durham and Sunderland will face bans on mixing with other households and a 10pm curfew from midnight tonight, in an attempt to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Is this a sign that the United Kingdom is heading for a second lockdown? Not according to health minister Ed Argar, who denied that a two-week nationwide lockdown is on the cards. Downing Street also remains keen to avoid a second shutdown.
But in many ways, whether we are or aren’t in lockdown now is a matter of degree; across large parts of the country, people are already in a second lockdown, with 10 million under some form of restriction since the loosening of the first began. The central problem remains unchanged: we don’t at present have a means to prevent the spread of Covid-19 other than locking down and self-isolating.
The social, physical and mental consequences of lockdowns are themselves unsustainable. And in practice you cannot prevent people from engaging in illicit social contacts, just as a government could not use abstinence as a sustainable or deliverable way to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted infections – states far more repressive than the UK have tried and failed to do so.
But the unique threat of the novel coronavirus is not in its deadliness, or even in the fact we still don’t know what the long-term prognosis for people who have had it is, or whether or not having had it confers lasting immunity. It is in what an uncontrolled outbreak does to healthcare capacity – that’s the challenge we’ve seen in Italy, in parts of the United States and may now be seeing again in Israel.
To the extent that lockdowns have a value, it is in buying time to think, act, prepare and build resilience. But we have not done so in a manner sufficient to allow the UK to forego lockdowns, instead preferring to focus our political energies on reforming the civil service and unpicking the Northern Ireland protocol, both aims that, whatever you think of them, could surely have been deferred by a year.
Now, regardless of whether a second lockdown happens formally, the fate of large parts of the country is already a second lockdown – and it’s far from certain that the government will use it any more effectively than they did the first.