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23 December 2020

The government’s coronavirus optimism will cost businesses and lives

Caught between two competing factions in the cabinet, the Prime Minister has pursued a disastrous middle way. 

By Stephen Bush

A further swathe of the south of England will enter the highest tier of coronavirus restrictions from Boxing Day, while places across England will enter a higher tier. But the problem with the government’s lockdown strategy can best be understood through a single borough: Waverley, the only part of Surrey to escape tighter restrictions last week, will enter tier four on 26 December.

It is the latest demonstration of something already shown by the rising caseload in tier three areas and government’s previous announcements: that, whether due to the new variant or to the laxity of the lower tiers, the restrictions on movement in tiers one, two and three are not sufficient to curb the spread of coronavirus cases.

Waverley is not a lone example – Suffolk and much of Sussex will move straight from tier two to tier four on 26 December – but it highlights the absurdity of the government’s approach. There is no reason to believe that tier two and tier three restrictions will be any more effective at curbing the rise in cases after Boxing Day than they were before.

The only reason to pursue this approach is to avoid having to announce a fresh, England-wide lockdown, and with it a renewed conversation about economic support measures for businesses in particular. The measures in place are designed to subsidise rent and salary costs, but there are other fixed cost businesses face, and the restrictions are particularly devastating for suppliers (for instance, breweries, which have recouped some losses by selling directly to households but in many cases have been left close to collapse).

The problem, of course, is that the UK government’s approach to the crisis is caught between two approaches: that of Matt Hancock and Michael Gove, who have been consistent advocates for tougher lockdown measures, and that of Rishi Sunak and a majority of cabinet ministers, who have long advocated for looser restrictions in order to spend less on economic support. Boris Johnson has consistently chosen a disastrous middle path between the two, resulting in belated lockdowns, inadequate economic support and a situation in which the UK government has spent more on coronavirus support than its peer countries for less return.

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Unless there is a change of approach, January will not only be marked by tougher lockdown measures but also by bankruptcies.