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31 October 2020

Why are we locking down again? Because England didn’t learn from Europe’s mistakes

Boris Johnson, Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel all have the same missing piece to their coronavirus strategies.

By Stephen Bush

England will go into a second nationwide lockdown, with the furlough scheme restored to its original level of 80 per cent, as a mounting caseload forced Boris Johnson to abandon the system of regional lockdowns, in a defeat for the cabinet’s fiscal hawks, who sought to open England up and, with it, pare back financial support.

The reality is that nothing has really changed in the last few days. We could already see, because the novel coronavirus arrived elsewhere in Europe before it arrived in the United Kingdom, that regional lockdowns do not work. In France, the government first had to tweak its colour-coded scale to add a humiliating and nonsensical “dark red” on top of its highest tier, before switching to tougher nationwide measures. The United Kingdom had in effect already introduced a “tier three plus” that was tougher than the default tier three measures.

Downing Street has, at least, avoided some of the other halfway measures that France opted for, such as a nationwide across-the-board curfew, but the reality is that the British government’s changing coronavirus strategy is a matter of politics, not policy: the policy argument from the government’s scientific advisers, and the story from across the world that a country of our size, type and demography, without the ability to test, trace and, crucially, isolate new cases of the novel coronavirus cannot maintain a functioning healthcare system without lockdown has not changed. What has changed is that the government was briefly willing to pay the political price for that in order to avoid spending more money on economic support measures, and no longer is.

The British government is currently falling short on three measures: the English test and trace system is not tracing a high enough level of contacts, statutory sick pay is too low, and we have no provision for central isolation. But as Wales’ higher rate of contact tracing shows, you cannot escape lockdown with an improved test and trace alone – you can only avoid lockdown if you have the capacity to isolate fresh cases. That is why Germany, which has a better test and trace system than England, is also entering a new lockdown.

That leaves Johnson with the same question that is facing his counterparts in Western Europe, which is this: why do we think we’re special? The coronavirus choice – unless you have a much younger population than the United Kingdom – is either to have your healthcare system overwhelmed, to construct the necessary apparatus to test, trace and quarantine new cases, or to have periodic on-again, off-again lockdowns. It has never been clear why any of the British, German or French governments have thought they could avoid this choice.

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Whatever you may think of Wales’ non-essential goods ban, or Scotland’s experiment with booze-free pubs, the Labour-Liberal Democrat government in Wales and the SNP government in Scotland have made a decision one way or the other. There was never any reason to believe that England could avoid today’s announcement, and the only realistic way to prevent another lockdown in the spring is for either one of the promising medical advances to come good or for the British government to do what none of its European peers have yet attempted: to build the necessary infrastructure to test, trace and isolate new cases of the novel coronavirus.