Here we are again. Once more, England will enter lockdown on Thursday, albeit somewhat less restrictive than the one in spring, with schools remaining open. Once more, the government has been far too slow to act. After so many errors by Boris Johnson, fresh ones are lamentable; making the same one is unforgivable.
Already, we have seen hundreds of deaths a day. The government’s Sage committee of experts has warned that Covid-19 could claim 85,000 lives this winter. On Saturday, the chief medical officer for England and the chief scientific adviser warned that without tighter restrictions the NHS could be overwhelmed within weeks. In the prime minister’s words: “Doctors and nurses would be forced to choose which patients to treat … Who would live and who would die.”
Mr Johnson declared that “now is the time to take action”. But his decision came a month and a half after Sage urged a short “circuit breaker” lockdown, and weeks after this column and Sir Keir Starmer made that call. Opposition in his party, his own libertarian instincts and his inability to get a grip on serious issues saw Mr Johnson attack the Labour leader for “want[ing] to turn the lights out”. Now he is imposing a stay-at-home order until at least 2 December, and perhaps longer.
No one wants a second lockdown. Many, with good reason, truly dread it. As Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust noted, second waves are usually tougher: everyone is worn out – healthcare workers most of all – and the effort can feel hopeless. It will be hardest of all for those already hard-hit, through lack of resources or for physical or mental health reasons.
But the alternative is much worse. Not many of us are willing to brush aside a high death toll and the serious health problems associated with “long Covid”. In any case, the false dichotomy presented, of a choice between lives and livelihoods, pretends that the economy can thrive while coronavirus tears through the country. What is truly depressing for many people is not lockdown in itself, but the growing conviction that this government has no exit plan, and no ability to execute one even if they stumble across it. True, Covid-19 has resurged across the continent (though many Asian nations have so far done well in suppressing it). But England recorded the highest level of excess deaths in Europe in the first wave and has continued to flounder.
The furlough extension is welcome and necessary. But the 11th-hour U-turn comes after redundancy decisions have been made and has caused anger in northern England, Wales and Scotland. The government’s incompetence has cost jobs as well as lives. It is not yet clear how the self-employed will be helped. The shoddy manner of Saturday’s announcement – with the prime minister addressing the public only after selected journalists had been briefed – has fuelled resentment.
This lockdown will save lives, and the more assiduously people respect it, the more quickly and effectively it will work. The public has so far proved markedly more responsible than those leading the country. But every government failure saps the morale, goodwill and sense of purpose on which compliance depends. The next month offers an opportunity to get the virus under control, not just briefly, but in the longer term. Mr Johnson and his team must use it to fix contact tracing and establish a more sensible and measured plan for exit from lockdown this time. They have given us no reason to believe that they will do so. But they, and we, cannot afford more mistakes.