Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
17 September 2020

The risk of a second lockdown exposes the UK government’s failures on Covid-19

Boris Johnson failed to use the first lockdown to build enough resilience to prevent a second. 

By Stephen Bush

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.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

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. 

Content from our partners
How do we secure the hybrid office?
How materials innovation can help achieve net zero and level-up the UK
Fantastic mental well-being strategies and where to find them

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.