Boris Johnson Is Right About Covid Circuit Breaker

(Bloomberg Opinion) — Manchester was in full revolt this week after ’s government tried to move the northern English city to the strictest “Tier 3” restrictions, closing pubs and banning households from meeting even in private gardens. Mayor Andy Burnham lashed out at ministers for treating those in the region as “sacrificial lambs” and derided Johnson’s lockdown strategy as “experimental.”

Burnham has a point: The new measures are indeed experimental. There’s no evidence that regional lockdowns will work; they haven’t so far. As for “sacrificial,” he may also be right. The regional pandemic strategy exists so that Johnson doesn’t have to announce blanket measures for the whole country. That isn’t a good look for a government that promised to rebalance the country’s economy away from the privileged south.

It emerged this week that Johnson had rejected a suggestion from his scientific advisors for a two- or three-week “circuit-breaker” to bring Covid transmission down. Labour leader Keir Starmer is also calling for a national circuit breaker. The idea is that the lockdown would apply everywhere in England, but it would be time limited and not as draconian as the restrictions at the start of the pandemic. Schools, for example, would be kept open, though they might get extended holidays.

Johnson was probably right to resist. One problem with the circuit-breaker approach is that it’s not clear the government can simply keep it to a couple of weeks around a school break and still meet its objective of slowing the relentless upward march in infections. Lockdowns often take longer to work, as Israel and Singapore have found. Once new national measures are put in place, how can you drop them again a couple of weeks later if there isn’t a discernible change in the virus curve? These restrictions tend to stick around.

The closure of large parts of the economy has devastating consequences: financial, social and on non-Covid health problems. While reducing social contact means infection rates come down — eventually — transmission (and deaths) rise again when the restrictions end. The pressure on health care systems is reduced, but only temporarily.

This dynamic is something we’ll need to get used to. In a recent interview with the British broadcaster Andrew Neil, the World Health Organization’s Covid envoy David Nabarro noted that this virus might be “toward the beginning of its relationship with the human race.” Some 90% of us are still susceptible to Covid, he said, so we’ll have to learn to live with it.

That doesn’t mean, however, that we should default to the modified “herd immunity” approach advocated by the Great Barrington Declaration, a manifesto against lockdowns. That paper recommends that we concentrate on protecting the truly vulnerable, but we’ve seen before how hard that is to do. It also turns out that even the healthy among us are prone to long-term Covid effects.

The reality is that neither circuit breakers (or any flavor of lockdown) nor a minimalist approach provides a complete answer, which explains why this stage of the virus is so vexing for policy makers. Johnson faces pressure from his scientific advisers and others to crack down harder on people mixing, and from many on the right of his Conservative Party to ease restrictions faster.

Given the widely contrasting infection rates in different parts of the country, it wasn’t unreasonable for the government to prefer a regional approach to the circuit breaker offered by this advisers. Other countries are trying similar policies. France has also opted for local restrictions and Spain is considering a new four-tier system based on the severity of regional outbreaks.

And yet government failings — in Britain and elsewhere — have made this policy impossible to implement smoothly. Uppermost was the failure to adequately consult and enlist the support of regional leaders to build consensus. These local resentments will fester for a long time, even all the way to the next national election.

Some of these national-local disputes have a political flavor, too. Burnham is a Labour mayor. Madrid, which has done battle with Spain’s Socialist government, is run by the right. Once lockdowns become a wedge issue between different political groups, it is hard to drive evidence-based policy (at least when the evidence becomes clearer).

The inadequacies of Britain’s test-and-trace system are another factor behind tougher lockdowns, and a valid cause of local anger. Less than a third of people tested for Covid in the week to Oct. 7 got their results within 24 hours and contact-tracing becomes harder as the infection rate rises.

If the current three-tier measures prove ineffective, Johnson will be under pressure to go further (as both Scotland and Northern Ireland have done). Some government scientific advisers have suggested that a circuit breaker be imposed over the Christmas period when schools are closed. That doesn’t sound very jolly, and it will almost certainly require new public-spending commitments, as Manchester is demanding.

Whether the tiered approach or a short, hard circuit-breaker achieve any long-term positive effect will depend entirely on how well the government uses the pause to implement a properly functioning test and trace system, and to strengthen local partnerships. Its past efforts don’t fill you with confidence.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.

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