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Is the UK heading for another lockdown? Don’t bet on it

Although the UK’s rising Covid-19 case rate points to a difficult winter, internal Tory party politics means that another lockdown is unlikely.

By Stephen Bush

Is the United Kingdom heading back into some kind of lockdown? England’s rising number of Covid-19 cases has got Westminster talking about the government’s fall-back measures to prevent the National Health Service being overwhelmed and the end of modern medicine as we know it. 

But the reality is, barring some kind of unexpected change in the balance of forces within the Conservative Party, there is no realistic prospect that the UK will head back into lockdown anytime soon. 

Although Boris Johnson could introduce further lockdown measures without fear that they would fail to pass the House of Commons, as the Conservative government would be able to count on similar change of position within the Labour Party, there is no prospect of a further full England-wide lockdown passing into law without a major rebellion within the Conservative Party, including potentially the cabinet. There would also be significant and politically painful rows about whether to re-introduce various economic measures, such as the furlough scheme, in the event of another lockdown. 

That in practice means there are hard limits on how any of the UK’s three devolved governments might respond to rising coronavirus cases over the winter: if there is no lockdown in England, and therefore no package of economic support, it will be very hard for Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland to enter any form of lockdown.

Of course, there are any number of measures short of full lockdown that the British government might turn to. The first would be the introduction of some form of vaccine passport system (a requirement to produce proof you have been double-jabbed or had a negative test result), the second would be a return to the legally-binding mask mandate, the third would be to encourage people to return to working from home where possible, the fourth would be to ban large-scale indoor gatherings, and the fifth would be to encourage teenagers to receive a coronavirus vaccine in a bid to slow the spread of Covid-19. 

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But the problem with two of these (the mask mandate and vaccine passports) is that they are already in place in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales (although Wales’ mask mandate is less strict than Scotland’s).  Cases are rising in Wales and Northern Ireland, and hospitalisations (the most important measure as far as avoiding another lockdown and loss of human life is concerned) are rising across the UK .  

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The biggest difference between Scotland and the rest of the UK at the moment is that they are vaccinating more teenagers. It may be that increasing the pressure and incentives for teenagers to do the same in England has a similarly beneficial effect. But that would also run up against the various internal obstacles within the Conservative Party.

Similar internal Tory problems would emerge if the government sought to restrict large indoor gatherings, or to encourage a return to homeworking, though encouraging more homeworking is probably the easiest and least politically painful lever that Johnson could pull. Almost everything else means a painful internal argument. 

So is the UK heading for a difficult winter, particularly if the flu season is particularly bad? Yes. But does that mean another lockdown? Almost certainly not: the politics of it are simply too fraught. Even an NHS crisis on the scale of that in late December 2020 might struggle to be enough.

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