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Last March, as the public clamour for stricter measures to combat the spread of Covid-19 became impossible to ignore, the government fretted over the country’s willingness to sign up to a national lockdown. As it turned out, most people were far more hawkish than the government in supporting draconian restrictions on everyday life. By waiting until late in the month, crucial ground was lost and so, unnecessarily, were thousands of lives.
As the new Covid variant strengthens its grip across the country, it has become clear that the lessons of March were not learned. In Scotland, where rates of infection are lower than in England, Nicola Sturgeon has announced a national lockdown, beginning at midnight. By contrast, amid total confusion over the reopening of schools, Boris Johnson has prevaricated and procrastinated. The tougher restrictions for England are finally being introduced almost a week after this newspaper called for a lockdown. As the former health secretary Jeremy Hunt has pointed out, each day of delay risks avoidable deaths.
For over a week, a host of statistics have demonstrated the need for swift action. The spread of Covid is out of control and the existing tier system of restrictions is failing to cope. There are growing concerns over a second South African variant. Hospitals have greater capacity to treat Covid cases, but as the UK’s chief medical officers stated on Monday, they are in clear danger of being overwhelmed. In the south-east of England, there are now an estimated 50% more Covid patients in hospital than during the April peak. Across the rest of the country, rates of hospitalisation are spiralling upwards each day. The dreadful milestone of 100,000 Covid-related deaths in Britain will not be avoided without a dramatic turnaround. Meanwhile, cancer patients and people with significant health issues are not being seen by overstretched NHS staff.
Since before Christmas, the government has trailed along haplessly in the wake of events, as if constantly surprised by them. The chaos over this week’s return to schools carried eerie echoes of the early spring. Then, as now, schools simply began to close their gates. Workplaces emptied, as the public grasped, more quickly than the government, what had to be done. This time round, Mr Johnson’s scientific advisers warned on 22 December that the exponential spread of infections meant that schools should remain closed and a national lockdown considered. The best form of crisis management is to anticipate and pre-empt, even if that means making unpopular decisions. But in Downing Street there is a persistent refusal to confront and act on the worst-case scenario before the worst has actually happened.
The economic and psychological impact of the grim midwinter to come will be enormous. Behind the curve yet again, the government’s emphasis must now be on ensuring maximum compliance with the new restrictions. The vast majority of the public support another national lockdown. But ensuring that the vaccination programme is scaled up rapidly and efficiently will be vital to national morale. Schools must finally be furnished with proper resources to facilitate online learning, and there must be swift clarity over the status of summer exams. Crucially, appropriate economic support must be offered to families and individuals, and those required to self-isolate. The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, must make it a priority to ensure that people have the means and financial security to do the right thing.
The government’s capacity to endlessly repeat the same mistakes hardly inspires confidence. But for a time-limited period, as the population is vaccinated, it is right to batten down the hatches. Tough as the coming weeks will be, this is not the open-ended nightmare that began to unfold last February and March. It is just a pity that the government did not recognise that changed context and act sooner.