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4 January 2021updated 05 Jan 2021 11:32am

The UK doesn’t just need a March-style lockdown, it needs public buy-in

It's unclear if either households or businesses are prepared to ensure a second deep lockdown is viable. 

By Stephen Bush

England will go back into lockdown for at least another six weeks, meaning the whole of the United Kingdom will once again enter a period of deep lockdown – analogous to the measures deployed in March, though support bubbles for people living alone will remain in place.

Although Boris Johnson couldn’t quite bring himself to say it, the logic of the government’s announcements is that the country will remain in lockdown until the vaccine rollout is sufficiently advanced that the NHS is able to absorb the epidemic without being overwhelmed.

The question is: will it work? March’s lockdown was the subject of incredible public buy-in on the part of the general population, and equally importantly, many individuals and businesses went beyond what was required of them by law. Many households observed far stricter lockdowns than those mandated by the government. What we don’t know is if the prospect of a permanent end to lockdown living brought about the vaccines will spur a similarly tight observation of lockdown – or if a combination of exhaustion at the measures in place, and anger at the high-profile breaching of lockdown by Dominic Cummings, will mean there is no repeat of the levels of lockdown observance we saw in the spring of 2020.

Hear more from Stephen on the New Statesman podcast:

Ultimately, the British state does not have the capacity or the capability to enforce a strict lockdown without public buy-in: it can only encourage it through public information campaigns, which it has largely done well, and demonstrating good behaviour, which it has largely done badly. We can only hope that the former outweighs the latter.

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A similar dynamic may be at play in the private sector. Multiple businesses, large and small, shut down when they were not required to – they have since pivoted to takeaway and have reopened having made the changes they consider necessary to be “virus safe”.

However, it is not clear whether those businesses actually are virus safe. Just as many households are still confused about the transmission of the virus, many businesses are too. You could see this wherever outdoor dining was allowed as many restaurants and pubs erected large canopies with outdoor heaters: essentially undoing any of the advantages of being outdoors as far as avoiding the spread of the coronavirus is concerned. And some businesses will be claiming to be “covid-secure” when they are anything but.

Then there are industries that have put plenty of useful guidance in place but in practice cannot operate in a covid-secure way or operate from home, where it may have been appropriate simply to shut them.

What these measures have in common is they can be enforced, but they cost money: both in enforcement and in compensation. While the government is still spending heavily on economic support due to its initial outpouring of generosity, the Rishi Sunak has been trying to pare back support for some time and has resisted further new measures. That has meant a lack of additional support for supply chains in particular, and, because the original measures were designed with a brief period of lockdown in mind, many businesses are left struggling to meet their fixed costs.

Insufficient public buy-in for the lockdown may hamper its effectiveness at slowing the growth of new cases, while insufficient support for businesses during it may mean that the world after vaccines is a cold one.