Boris is sleepwalking into the national lockdown he claims to despise

It’s easy to see why didn’t want another national lockdown. It’s a crude and painful tool, he says, used back in March when it was feared that the NHS would be crushed by the virus. To replay the drama now, he argues, would choke off the national recovery and end up “shattering our lives and our society”. Rishi Sunak, his Chancellor, very much agrees. But from midnight tonight, both men will be living under conditions that will feel a lot like lockdown: no dinner parties, no social events. And no end in sight.

In theory, London’s move into “Tier 2” is a small change. In practice, it’s quite a big one. Groups of friends (as opposed to family members who live together or flatmates) can no longer meet in restaurants, so bookings will be badly hit. This is the point when restaurateurs decide to file for bankruptcy: there is no telling when these restrictions can end. A friend of mine, single for years, started dating recently.  It’s now illegal for him to meet her in an art gallery or sandwich shop, let alone each other’s house. In this way, Londoners have come under the laws that have governed parts of the north of England for some time. Manchester has narrowly avoided an even tighter regime.

The Prime Minister is now sleepwalking into the national lockdown that he says he wants to avoid. By this weekend, just over half the country will be confined to varying degrees of social isolation. In theory, office work carries on as usual, but a change to the travel advice could stop that too. 

National lockdown would be terrible, he says, as it would hurt the economy and “erode our long term ability to fund the NHS”. But growth is evaporating in region after region: it means lower tax receipts, less money for public services, more poverty and more unemployment. That’s what we’re losing. It’s not quite clear what we gain.

A widely-reported paper from members of the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) sought to put figures on it: some “circuit-breaker” restrictions could cut Covid deaths between now and the end of the year from roughly 19,900 to 12,100. But Prof Matt Keeling, one of the authors, later added an important caveat: this delays, rather than averts, deaths. As soon as restrictions are lifted, infections rise again – so it’s a short-term measure that buys time. That would make sense if Britain had an NHS on the brink of collapse – but it doesn’t. 

One frustration for local authorities in Liverpool is how little information they are being given. One of those involved in recent talks suspects the prospect of an NHS Merseyside meltdown is being used to bounce the city into accepting lockdown. It’s an odd idea because the National Health Service is, as its name suggests, designed to overcome local pressures. If one hospital gets close to capacity, patients can be sent to others. When it comes to national triage, or upscaling to accommodate a disaster, no one does it more effectively than the NHS.

Covid in Liverpool is serious, but under control. Some 323 Covid patients were in Liverpool University Hospitals at the last count, which works out at about a fifth of their beds. For Britain as a whole, there are currently ten ventilator beds for every Covid patient in need of such treatment – so this is hardly a system that is overwhelmed, or under any realistic threat of being overwhelmed. London was hardest-hit last time, yet the city’s hospitals coped when Covid patients were arriving at 880 patients a day. They’re coming at less than a tenth of that rate now, which makes it harder to understand why the city has been put under restrictions. Certainly not to “protect the NHS”.

This slogan has long rankled with doctors who feel, quite strongly, that the NHS is there to protect the public and not vice versa. “Protect the NHS” works as a piece of political messaging: polling in No10 shows it’s the most effective message they deploy. But it’s just too powerful. If people are told they need to “protect” the NHS by staying away from it, there’s a clear risk that the sick will avoid treatment. The rise in deaths at home suggest this is already happening.

The NHS is so alarmed at this that it has taken out television adverts encouraging people to use the health service, to come in and get the smallest lump checked out: Covid, it says, is never a reason not to see your doctor. But such a message will be up against stiff competition from Downing Street. Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, likes “protect the NHS” so much that he has the slogan written on a facemask. 

The Prime Minister talks about how, without more lockdown restrictions, the NHS “will swiftly be under intolerable pressure”. But where is the evidence for this?

Apart from anything else, medics know far more about how to treat Covid now: better use of blood thinners, and oxygen therapy that doesn’t involve ventilators. Even for Covid patients who end up on ventilators the four-week survival rate is now 78 per cent, up from 61 per cent. Then there are the never-used Nightingale centres with some – like Manchester’s – being reactivated, just in case. The NHS is, all around, better-prepared. And ready for a pretty significant increase in the virus, should that happen.

The Sage scientific advisers, in lobbying for tighter restrictions, are making their case effectively. “They have been given a crash course in the dark arts of spin,” says someone involved in the pandemic response from the offset. “They now lobby as a group, and it’s hard to lobby back.” Theresa May recently told Johnson that he needed a business person on Sage: he replied that he could not, otherwise it would be pronounced “beige”. But her point is a good one: he’s losing the argument. He needs reinforcements.

Boris can tell himself that there is no proper lockdown – but when you’re legally forbidden from meeting your friends and family, as most Brits now are, the difference is pretty moot. If NHS capacity is no longer the test for keeping restrictions at bay, it’s unclear what is. For reasons even the Cabinet can’t quite understand, it seems that we’re about to enter the cycle all over again – and a Prime Minister who isn’t quite sure how he got into this mess may well struggle to find a way out.

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