As countries across Europe eased lockdowns during their summer months, the spectre always lurked of a “second wave” of coronavirus in the autumn. This week, the wave has broken. Prime minister Boris Johnson on Monday announced tighter restrictions to curb an alarming rise in cases across northern England, after Scotland toughened its measures. By Wednesday, Northern Ireland announced a four-week “circuit-breaker” lockdown; Wales said it was “actively preparing” one. From midnight on Friday, London’s 10m people will face stricter rules. With events moving at such speed, and Mr Johnson’s regionally targeted approach coming under strain, a circuit-breaker shutdown across England, too, now seems a question of when, not if.
European governments must once more weigh the balance between safeguarding lives and safeguarding the economy. French president Emmanuel Macron has imposed a 9pm-6am curfew in Paris and eight other cities. Even in Germany, with the best virus control record of Europe’s large economies, chancellor Angela Merkel thrashed out restrictions on social gatherings and domestic travel with state governors.
In the UK, the debate has shifted since documents revealed the government’s Sage advisory committee last month advocated a circuit-breaker lockdown in England, and Labour leader Keir Starmer seized on the idea. Modelling led by two leading scientific advisers suggested a two-week “intense” lockdown, coinciding in part with the coming school half term, could save thousands of lives before the year-end and sharply cut hospital admissions. Mr Johnson risks seeming to bend to opposition pressure if he pursues such an option now. Yet he may need to summon all his political guile, and defy his party’s libertarian wing.
According to Sage, a time-limited shutdown, if widely observed, could swap two weeks of rapid growth in transmission for two weeks of “decay” in the rate — putting the epidemic back by 28 days or more. Only a week ago, the tiered regional approach Mr Johnson favoured seemed a viable alternative. Yet England’s chief medical officer has warned the strictest-level regional restrictions now risk being inadequate. An October circuit-breaker could potentially be repeated during the Christmas and Easter school holidays to arrest and reverse the virus spread, allowing more normal activity to resume in between.
Businesses will be dismayed at the idea of even a time-limited lockdown. Areas with lower case numbers will ask why they should be shut down along with pandemic hotspots. Partly, the answer is in the scientific advisers’ warning that even last month “exponential growth had returned in almost all regions”. What they call a “precautionary break” would prevent cases inexorably rising out of control in lower-rate regions too. It would slow the spread from higher to lower-risk areas. Above all, while regional controls will still be needed afterwards, a circuit-breaker might avert the need for a vastly more damaging indefinite national lockdown. That must be the priority.
If it is to impose a “precautionary break”, however, the government has two overriding duties. One is to ensure adequate financial support to companies and individuals for its duration. The other is to use the time it will buy to fix the shambolic test and trace system. By now, that system ought to be sophisticated enough to target micro-level clusters. Instead, Sage noted acidly that it was having only a “marginal” impact on controlling the spread. The less confident the public are that government is fulfilling its role in defeating the virus, the less willing they will be to play their own difficult, but vital, part.