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1 April 2020

Will the UK government face discontent over the length of the coronavirus lockdown?

In Italy and Spain, there is rising frustration over social restrictions. 

By Stephen Bush

Reasons to be cheerful? Stephen Powis, the national medical director at NHS England, has said that we might be seeing signs of hope in the Covid-19 crisis: a plateau in new cases, suggesting that the United Kingdom’s lockdown measures may be beginning to have an effect. 

But as Powis cautioned, an apparent plateau in the number of new cases doesn’t mean that we are out of the woods yet – the medical consensus is that the peak of the epidemic will come four weeks after cases begin to plateau, and it is far from clear if we have even reached the plateau yet.

Powis’s message – and the overall one the government is trying to communicate – has three aims. Firstly, to reiterate that most people are reducing their social contact and that the collective sacrifice is working. Secondly, that we are not going to be living like this forever: we’re not going to wake up in 2030 to discover that the BBC’s number one show is Strictly Come Delivery Driving, in which celebrities compete for one of the handful of jobs allowing you to feel the sun on your face for longer than an hour. But, thirdly, while this won’t go on forever, it might go on for a while yet.

Governments across Europe have grown accustomed over the past few weeks to looking at Italy and Spain and worrying that they are being given a glimpse of their own future. Now that medical question is becoming a political one, as Italy and Spain begin to chafe under the restrictions of lockdown.

Two good on-the-ground pieces in the FT and the Guardian today detail the growing discontent at the measures. Will the UK end up in the same place?

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One reason why it might not is that the British government has taken the sensible decision to keep communal green spaces open – though some councils, such as Tower Hamlets, have opted to shut their parks – and that part of the discontent is that people without open spaces of their own are simply going stir crazy.

But the other thing driving discontent is that people are simply running out of money. The income protection schemes unveiled in much of Europe, including here in the UK, ought to prevent that. But the UK’s rising unemployment rate, coupled with the long wait that the self-employed face to get their income protection in their bank accounts, might mean that even if the UK has successfully avoided Italy’s medical fate, it might still end up facing the same political backdrop of mounting discontent at lockdown and with government.