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4 January 2021updated 05 Jan 2021 11:34am

Boris Johnson is unwilling to take any decision on Covid-19 until his hand is forced

The government only tightens restrictions when the NHS is becoming overwhelmed, rather than taking pre-emptive action.

By Stephen Bush

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: the United Kingdom’s coronavirus cases are rising at a rapid rate, and some schools in tier four areas in England have been asked to close, while other schools in tier four areas have taken it upon themselves to close unilaterally.

The single most obvious policy fact is this: the level of restrictions in tiers one through to three do not work. If they did, we would not be where we are, with parts of England moving into tier four all the time and more expected to follow this week. There is no reason to believe that if the government in England is having to close schools in some parts of the country this week, it will not have to close them across England next week. 

[See also: Boris Johnson’s dithering over Covid-19 has left the UK fatally exposed – again]

Say what you like about the different approaches that the devolved governments in Scotland and Wales have taken to school closures and this summer’s exams but they have, at least, grasped that basic truth. The problem in England is twofold: the first is that the government’s coronavirus strategy in practice is to run the NHS at as close to capacity as possible and to tighten restrictions only when that balancing act becomes either impossible or near-to-impossible. That means tougher restrictions than otherwise needed and that go on for longer.

[See also: Local Covid restrictions: the latest data on cases by local authority for England and the UK]

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The second is that the governing party is badly split on the need for greater lockdowns and that further incentivises the government to wait until the last possible moment, when the NHS is already buckling under the strain, rather than acting fast to lockdown early. 

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Of course, lockdown is a policy with costs: it has heavy social and mental health tolls, and further increases the need for a bailout for businesses in general and supply chains in particular. But the only way to avoid those costs is an uncontrolled epidemic which cripples healthcare capacity, further knackers economic capability and contains within it the possibility for further and more dangerous mutations of the coronavirus. 

That policy question has not changed since March and it remains the same now. Unfortunately, what also hasn’t changed is the dilatory response by Downing Street and the Prime Minister’s reluctance to choose between any of the options until his hand is forced. 

Hear more from Stephen in the New Statesman podcast: