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21 September 2020

The threat of a second lockdown shows why the government must not end financial support

Ministers cannot maintain consent for lockdown measures if people have to choose between financial survival and entering self-isolation. 

By Stephen Bush

The United Kingdom is on the brink of a second serious outbreak of the novel coronavirus, with the country heading towards 50,000 new cases a day by the middle of October if the current trajectory is not halted, the government’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty and chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance have warned. Calls to the non-emergency services and steadily increasing hospitalisations point to a second wave of infections, just in time for the autumn and winter: the exact scenario that the government wanted to avoid back in March.

Or is it? Some epidemiologists think the government is refighting the last war and that we need to focus on living with coronavirus, rather than attempting to suppress it.

Regardless of who is right, one thing is clear: the government’s economic strategy and its virus-fighting strategy increasingly could be the work of two entirely different administrations. At exactly the point that £10,000 fines are being brought in for people who don’t follow the test and trace rules, the ban on rental evictions is ending in England and Wales, while the furlough scheme will also be closed at the end of October.

​​​​​​At the risk of sounding like a stuck record: you cannot maintain consent for lockdown measures if people have to choose between financial survival and entering self-isolation. That’s the lesson from around the world: if people can’t afford to observe social distancing and lockdown measures, there is widespread flouting of the rules. That is why India’s outbreak spread freely, why the United States has struggled to contain the disease, and why the United Kingdom, and most European countries, were able to manage their lockdowns more effectively. 

But the problem is that the British government is trying to have it both ways: curtailing the financial measures that supported businesses and households through the first lockdown while inching closer to a second lockdown.

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[see also: The risk of a second lockdown exposes the UK government’s failures on Covid-19]