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29 October 2020

The longer Boris Johnson waits to impose a lockdown, the longer England will stay there

The government may be making a fatal error by refusing to change course even as Covid-19 cases rapidly accelerate. 

By Ailbhe Rea

Nearly 100,000 people are catching Covid-19 every day in England, a major study by Imperial College London has suggested, as the authors warn that we are at a “critical stage” of the coronavirus pandemic in England and “something has to change”.

The highest number of cases is still in the north of England but the highest rate of acceleration is in the south, prompting widespread expectations that large parts of the south will be put under tier two restrictions, while places such as London could be placed into tier three, with further discussion about whether these restrictions will be enough. The main question, however, is still whether the government is making a fatal error by avoiding a national lockdown in England, preferring a regional approach under which even the highest level of restrictions are not guaranteed to reverse the rate of acceleration. 

This serious policy debate has been increasingly reduced to a rather unhelpful “health vs economy” dichotomy as time has gone on. So it is perhaps worth returning to the single most important lesson from the first wave: that locking down sooner saves lives, and enables an earlier exit from those restrictions. The reasons for the government’s reluctance are well-known. But it is worth bearing in mind this observation from Devi Sridhar, chair of global public health at Edinburgh University and one of the UK’s most astute voices on the pandemic: “The longer we delay the decision to go into lockdown, the longer it is going to last.” This is also the warning from the authors of the Imperial report.

Perhaps the government will be able to get through the winter with a regional approach consisting of restrictions that many fear won’t reverse the rise in cases. But England’s risky strategy makes it an outlier. If the government eventually has to impose a nationwide lockdown, there is not just a health case, but an obvious economic one, for doing so sooner rather than later. 

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