Why aren’t local lockdowns working?

The UK’s four governments cannot afford to pursue a dysfunctional local lockdown strategy.

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Pubs, bars and restaurants in Edinburgh, Glasgow and much of Scotland’s central belt will be closed from Friday at 6pm, while pubs, bars and restaurants in Merseyside, Newcastle and Manchester will follow suit on Monday. This means the majority of people in Scotland and Wales are now under some form of lockdown, and England may be heading the same way. In Northern Ireland, meanwhile, Diane Dodds, the economy minister, has called on Westminster to provide additional funds in order to facilitate the possibility of a further lockdown. 

In England, the government will unveil a new and easier to understand system of tiers – tier one, currently the default across England, with social distancing and the rule of six in place, tier two, in which a ban on household mixing is imposed instead, and tier three, in which pubs and restaurants are shut down – and local areas will receive an increased package of economic support to tide them through these lockdowns.

[See also: A third of UK residents are under lockdowns – but has this changed their behaviour?]

The Conservative government has been planning to introduce a simplified (or, at least, to Google) set of traffic-light style restrictions. But the most important detail of the new tiers isn’t that there is no “green” light, but that the government has given itself plenty of wriggle room to add a tougher tier four, or tier five on top, in order to avoid a repeat of the French experience, where authorities were mocked for introducing a “dark red” colour in addition to the regular “red”. 

But the big question is: why aren’t these local lockdowns working? According to analysis of infection rates compiled by the Labour Party, and followed up by pretty much all of the papers, in 19 of the 20 areas in local lockdown for more than two months, the spread of new infections is growing, not ebbing. 

Is it that the reluctance to work with local authorities is hampering the effectiveness of local lockdowns? Is the lack of sufficient support for people who can’t work from home causing employees to return to work while still contagious? Is it that the Conservative government hasn’t managed to produce an adequate test and trace system, and never really attempted to centrally isolate cases? Is it that people’s sense of what is going on in their local areas is patchy, thanks to the long-term plight of local news and a London-centric communications strategy and media? Are people simply tired and beaten down by lockdown, and therefore more inclined to breach these rules? Or is it some combination of all the above – or something else entirely?

Whatever the answer, the United Kingdom’s four governments need to work it out, and swiftly, rather than simply pushing ahead with the same old local lockdown strategy in a more legible format.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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