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13 March 2020

How big a risk is the government taking in not ordering a lockdown to combat Covid-19?

The implicit logic of yesterday's statement is that the stories about how effectively South Korea has tackled the outbreak will give way to stories about its recurrence in that country.

By Stephen Bush

In a sobering statement Boris Johnson, accompanied by the government’s top scientists, explained the plan: to delay and flatten the peak of the outbreak until later in the year, in order to prevent the health service from becoming overwhelmed.

But the British and devolved governments are global outliers, as many governments around the world are pursuing far more sweeping closure and isolation programmes. Ireland, Portugal and Belgium are the latest to announce they are shutting schools and colleges. The Scottish government is curtailing gatherings of more than 500 people, but as operational decision to free up resources in the emergency services to tackle the outbreak – not as an instrument of containment itself.

Away from the headlines, the UK isn’t quite as far out on its own as it looks. The German national government has done the same thing as Britain – in both countries, education is a devolved responsibility, and in both countries, the Länder and the Welsh and Scottish governments can, if they wish, close schools. The difference, of course, is that the Westminster government is both England’s devolved administration and the country’s national one. Many of the closure programmes extend only as far as April – and no one believes that the virus will have vanished at that point. It may well be that global governments have very similar strategies in reality: it’s just that some are being less candid about their aims.

The science underpinning the UK’s thinking is that, bluntly, they don’t believe that the containment measures that are currently keeping the virus in check in South Korea and Singapore are sustainable – and that the measures being announced in other European countries will similarly fall short. The implicit logic of their statement yesterday is that stories about how effectively South Korea has tackled the outbreak will give way to stories about its recurrence in that country.

Are they right? Behavioural science is a very young science – but it’s clear that both the UK’s chief scientific advisor and chief medical officer believe that the more drastic measures that the UK’s four governments are thus far eschewing wouldn’t work.

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There’s a lively debate in the scientific community about whether they are right or not, but ultimately, you pay your money and you make your choice. Intuitively, when you think about the UK’s last major public health challenge – -the outbreak of HIV/Aids – and rates of unprotected sex, I think the government is probably right: I don’t think you can sustain the more draconian measures.

But the bigger political risk for the government is that while in 2021 we might look back and realise that it picked the right approach, people who lose loved ones aren’t going to be particularly interested in a comparative analysis of how France coped with the outbreak. They will likely blame the government – and while the opposition parties aren’t trying to make hay at the government’s expense, they may end up with an awful lot of hay anyway.