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14 December 2020

London will go into lockdown, but it’s the rest of the United Kingdom that’s at risk

The Christmas unlocking will redistribute Covid-19 cases from a young city to an old country, with deadly consequences.

By Stephen Bush

London will go into lockdown for a week, after which Londoners – more than half of whom were born outside the capital – will be free to do what they usually do at Christmas, and return to their hometowns elsewhere in the country in large numbers.

More importantly, because many people who move to London from elsewhere in the United Kingdom are those right at the start of their careers, Londoners are more likely to return to their family homes than almost anyone else in the UK. We can see this play out in transport data every year: there are large numbers of outflows from London in the run-up to Christmas, and relatively small inflows.

Added to that, due to centuries of London-centric decisions on transport policy, millions of people who are returning home for Christmas will do so via London, and millions more will board trains or coaches that start their journeys in the capital, or stop for respite at service stations filled with people making the journey from there. So the high rate of coronavirus in the capital will not stay there if the government’s plans go ahead.

To make matters worse, while the measures imposed during the nationwide lockdown and in tier three have been tough enough to successfully reduce the number of cases in England’s other major regions, the lockdown made little difference to London’s case rate. Given that London is the UK’s only global city and has a higher proportion of key workers than anywhere else, this may suggest that a tougher lockdown was required, or that London needed to be placed in tier three earlier. In either case, we are where we are: the government judges that London has too many coronavirus cases for the city’s restaurants to remain open, but not so many that Londoners cannot leave the city for Christmas less than a week after the full lockdown.

[see also: The UK’s Covid-19 Christmas policy could have a catastrophic human cost]

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Why was London in tier two to begin with? The answer is twofold: the first is that the capital’s economic dominance means keeping it unlocked as long as possible is core to the Conservative government’s “half in, half out” approach to the pandemic and the economic crisis. The second is that London’s younger population means that it takes a larger number of coronavirus cases to overwhelm NHS critical capacity.

The problem is that while you can make a plausible case for why London was kept in tier two until this week, you cannot do so if you are planning to loosen restrictions over Christmas. London’s young population means it can absorb a higher number of critical cases than other parts of the UK – but allowing Londoners to diffuse around the rest of the country means the disease will be spread to places and demographics that are not as well placed to absorb an increase in coronavirus cases. 

Not all cases are created equal. The average Londoner is much more likely to be of an age at which they, at worst, experience coronavirus as a highly unpleasant period of illness. But a spread of cases from London to the rest of the United Kingdom will have lethal consequences.

The government was faced with two options: to shut down London for longer than the rest of the country or to prohibit the movement of Londoners back to their family homes from 23 December. They opted not to do the former and it is unlikely that they will find the courage to do the latter. The consequences may be grim.

[see also: What Germany’s anti-lockdown protests reveal about the country]