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30 December 2020

How Boris Johnson’s government lost control of Covid-19 again

The tiered system failed to prevent a new spike in infections and eroded national solidarity. 

By Paul Mason

It’s obvious from its actions that the UK government’s one objective since the first lockdown has been to stop the NHS from being overwhelmed. But having failed on almost every other front, by yesterday (29 December) it was failing even to do this. 

Patients queuing in ambulances faced three-hour waits outside an A&E department in Birmingham; Essex local authorities declared an emergency; the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Woolwich, south London, declared a major incident after its oxygen supply system reached capacity due to the number of coronavirus patients.

The Nightingale hospitals, built with great fanfare in March-April, were quietly dismantled in order to concentrate resources on the real NHS, not the fantasy one conjured up by Downing Street’s PR machine. Since the full effect of the government’s Christmas relaxation of lockdown restrictions has not been felt, we have to assume that the likely peak in cases is two weeks away and that deaths will peak around the end of January.

Today the government put three quarters of the English population into Tier 4, starting on 31 December, as daily deaths reached 981. But the tiers system doesn’t work. If it worked, then, as in other afflicted European countries, the curve of infections would have flattened from November to December. Instead the UK has become an outlier, with infections soaring above the first wave peak.

Let’s deconstruct how this happened from the available evidence. The last published Sage minutes are from 3 December, when the R rate was falling slightly due to the month-long national lockdown imposed in early November. Scientists told the government to restrict household mixing to one or two days over the Christmas period, and to “exclusive bubbles”, warning that a surge in infections would follow if this was not the case.

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When it became clear that Boris Johnson intended to disregard that advice, Keir Starmer called for the Christmas relaxation to be suspended, prompting Johnson’s jibe that he wanted to “cancel Christmas”. Millions of families began their final preparations only to be told, three days later on 19 December, that Christmas was indeed cancelled, with London and south-east England entering a new, higher lockdown tier – tier four – and the borders to Wales and Scotland once again closed.

At this point you might want to know what SPI-B, the expert group of behaviour scientists advising the government on the social and psychological risks of its actions, thought of this. But SPI-B has not published a single document since 2 October. In an earlier paper it warned ministers that if the government repeatedly makes mistakes, the public are less likely to follow the rules. 

At the height of the first national lockdown, with grim pictures emerging from intensive care units, a self-reported survey cited by SPI-B found that 98 per cent of people were observing advice on social distancing, mask-wearing and hand-washing. By mid-July, after a media fanfare around “freedom”, echoed by the government, only half of the public said they were consistently maintaining social distancing – which was still in force. As to the causes, the report identified three processes occurring simultaneously over the summer, each backed by polling evidence: “decline in trust in the government, of national togetherness, and decline in perceived risk”.

Absent any further evidence from the behavioural science committee, we are left to hunches, anecdotes and experience. Mine are as follows. 

In late summer I spoke to a senior businessman who had been briefed by the government that there would be no second national lockdown. The economic cost would be too high and, with the Treasury already reeling from the cost of the first lockdown, ministers were unwilling to face the fiscal consequences. So when the second wave of coronavirus began, the government adopted a policy of regional tiers, almost none of which worked. Chancellor Rishi Sunak fought hard to stop the second lockdown, and the extension of the national furlough scheme, and then disappeared after the announcement of both. But the behavioural damage had already been done: the lower death rate in the second wave reinforced the perceived decline in risk over the summer, so the fear of dying was never strong enough to influence behaviour.

Even in tiers three and four, which I have experienced as a London resident, there is a behavioural assumption that the rules are just guidelines: there is social tolerance for people breaking them and few attempts to enforce them. At my local mini-market, while the security guard on the door will remind a friendly-looking person to put on a mask, he will ignore maskless people who are young or appear threatening (and why shouldn’t he, given the risks). 

And something else changed over the summer, not so much the gatherings on Bournemouth beach as the Black Lives Matter demonstrations. After the latter, far-right activists in the UK began to conflate Covid-19 rules, such as mask-wearing, with “wokeness” and support for anti-racism – and their poisonous rhetoric was encouraged by the contrarians and libertarians of the Tory right.

One contact from East Kent told me that in his local area, people in the pubs and on Facebook groups declared that “masks are Marxist”. A glance at the Covid-19 prevalence rate in Kent tells the rest of the story. This is what I think SPI-B meant when it cited a “decline in national togetherness” as eroding compliance over the summer.

The attempted storming of Harrods by 300 maskless teenagers on 5 December, after the end of the second national lockdown, was not a random event: it was clearly planned on social media. This should have been a signal that the government was losing the behavioural war.

As for the new, more easily transmissible strain of the virus, don’t blame the RNA. That’s what viruses do – they mutate. We haven’t had biologists and epidemiologists sitting on Zoom for nine months assuming they were dealing with a static threat: the potential for mutation is ever present. We don’t yet know where the mutation started, but if it was in the UK then it may have been because, having relaxed the rules in summer, the government never adopted a strong posture of communication and enforcement as they were tightened again.

With the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine now approved by the UK government, and with a mass rollout to follow, the end may be in sight. But January will be a dark month. Faced with a tiered system that does not work, that is always imposed too slowly and reluctantly, and with a government incapable of communicating the risks, the sensible thing to do – for those who can – is to hunker down.

But there are millions who cannot, or cannot afford to: the emergency service workers, the construction workers, the transport workers and the fulfilment centre workers whose businesses are on overdrive. They need the two things the government has at no point offered: a universal, generous furlough scheme and a single national lockdown, tightly enforced, with cross-party messaging in support of it and the suppression of disinformation and anti-lockdown protests.

If the tiered system worked, it would have stopped the December spike in infections. It didn’t. But in the process it eroded national solidarity – setting Liverpool against Manchester, the north of England against the south of England, and at a granular level encouraging fatalism and division among people.

As you watch what happens in January, remember: this could have been different. It is the result of political choices.