There is always a tension between what one would like and what one has to do. Mature, responsible adults always prioritise the latter.
Sometimes governments are tempted to try and split the difference.
There is no doubt that the coronavirus is out of control again, particularly in the North of England. The tiered system appears to be more like a traffic light, each level indicating that we are getting closer to stop. London has already moved closer to a halt; it’s unlikely any corner of England is totally safe.
The United Kingdom is not alone in facing difficulties with the coronavirus. Second waves of infections are crashing into the United States and countries in the European Union.
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Some nations, however, are adhering more closely to scientific advice than others.
The Labour Party believes we should follow the advice coming from the government’s own scientific advisors: we should institute a “circuit breaker” lockdown in order to break the cycle.
This “circuit break” would be a national pause, in which non-essential offices would be closed, as would be pubs, bars and restaurants. Household mixing would be restricted. This could be timed around half-term to ensure schools will not be required to close. Overall, this period would be limited to two to three weeks.
The point of such a pause is the following: we need to slow the rate of infections to protect the NHS. There are alarming reports coming from Liverpool and elsewhere about how Covid patient numbers are rising; a secondary and just as important effect is this rise crowds out the NHS’ ability to provide elective surgery, care for those with cancer and so on. If used wisely, this period can also give the government enough breathing space to fix the problems with track and trace. After all, the government is paying some consultants £7,000 per day (according to media reports): it’s time to get our money’s worth.
A “circuit break” may prove cheaper over the medium term: any such lockdown would entail direct financial support to the businesses affected by it. However, this immediate support could very well be less expensive than the spiral we are in now. Looking at the numbers, it appears that some form of lockdown is inevitable. It’s a question of if we do it in a short, sharp burst, or we fall into a period of sustained lockdown: the virus must be brought under control, the necessity does not disappear just because the means entail something we’d rather avoid.
What would be more costly? A short period in which businesses are compensated? Or the halfway house we are in now, which will lead to a longer shutdown and even more business failures?
Of course, a “circuit break” will require decisive leadership to make it stick: it’s one thing for government to lay down a set of rules, it’s quite another for them to be obeyed.
Clarity has been lacking as of late.
A “circuit break” will work best if we can revive the spirit of cooperation we had in March: there was a widespread consciousness that we needed to protect the NHS, and we could best do so by modifying our behaviour.
I am concerned that the current government is not best placed to do this: when confronted with tough choices, it has tried and tried again to split the difference. It is still trying to do so. If it ignores the necessity of a “circuit break”, this could be a very grim winter indeed.