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30 October 2020

The UK government’s approach is ending as it was always going to: in lockdown

Since the government will not back the heavy surveillance of Taiwan, or the loose approach of Sweden, the only way is lockdown.

By Stephen Bush

The Conservative government is considering a second England-wide lockdown in the face of rising cases of the novel coronavirus.

The news is, in a very real sense, wholly unsurprising. No country that has failed to implement a system to test, trace and isolate new cases of Covid-19 has been able to avoid lockdowns. In the United Kingdom, the Labour government in Wales has managed to put together a system that can trace new cases, but it has no system to isolate them. The Conservative government in England has managed neither to effectively trace new infections, nor to isolate them. In Scotland, the SNP government is doing better than the Conservatives, but has no provision for central isolation. As a result, Wales and Scotland have already entered lockdown while England is highly likely to join them, according to two sources familiar with the government’s thinking on the issue.

This has been the pattern throughout Europe: the political class congratulating itself that it has avoided the supposedly authoritarian choices of enforced quarantine or of invasive surveillance, but instead signing up to the socially and mentally painful option of further lockdowns for the entirety of the population.

It’s not really fair – though it is funny, and in these dark times, what else is there but to laugh at the government? – to say that the government is making a mistake by leaking the news rather than announcing it. Modern governments are huge entities and leaks are a product of that: unlike in March, when many of the leaks were deliberate briefings from the centre of government to preferred journalists, leaks in this phase of the Covid-19 crisis have come from all over. They are unavoidable.

What is avoidable is the endless lurch from crisis to crisis. While the United Kingdom is fairly typical as far as European governments are concerned, policymakers could opt to break the cycle: to choose either the looser restrictions of Sweden or the surveillance and central isolation of Japan and South Korea. The government has instead chosen neither approach, which means an unending nightmare of on-again, off-again lockdown: unless or until medical science advances enough to put the novel coronavirus on its back.

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