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Keir Starmer’s call for a “circuit breaker” lockdown for two or three weeks was a bold and politically astute move. If the Prime Minister ultimately implements such a policy, he will be seen as dancing to Sir Keir’s tune. If he does not, the Leader of the Opposition can point to an alternative course of action that might have made a difference in the likely event of deaths and hospitalisations continuing to rise.
Starmer can also make the argument that he is the one who is “following the science”, given we now know that the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies recommended exactly this policy on 21 September, saying it would knock back the spread of the virus by 28 days. For the early months of the pandemic, the Government consistently justified its action on the basis that it was “following the science”. Now that the Prime Minister has decided not to follow that advice, this justification is no longer available to him.
On the face of it, the circuit breaker approach has its attractions, by which I mean it is a policy that has huge downsides but might still be the least worst option available. A short, sharp lockdown would be worthwhile if it reversed the progress of virus before it has the chance to spread further amongst groups at risk, provided more time to implement an adequate test, trace and isolate programme and, at the end of the circuit break period, allowed us to return to some semblance of normality – at least for a while.
However, I have a couple of concerns. These are not the concerns of a “lockdown sceptic”. Indeed, when it comes to a national circuit break, I would describe myself as persuadable. It is clear to me that, were we to carry on our lives normally, a virus that spreads through human interaction would be likely to sweep through the population and result in a staggering number of deaths.
Nor is there a simple economy versus public health trade-off. If the pandemic was rampant, our economic behaviour – as workers, consumers and investors – would change fundamentally. Much of the economic damage we have seen in recent months comes from changing voluntary behaviour, not as a consequence of government-imposed restrictions.
My concerns about a circuit breaker are more limited. Firstly, does it really need to be national? The prevalence of the virus varies very considerably across the country. Is it right that a policy designed to deal with the conditions of Liverpool and London should apply to Launceston or Leiston? This may help maintain a spirit of “we’re all in it together” if we have one national system, but this does not strike me as a strong enough argument to prevent parts of the country carrying on some kind of normal life and making some kind of normal contribution to the economy. The case for national restrictions rather than local restrictions still needs to be made.
Second, how confident can we be that a two-to-three-week circuit breaker would last two or three weeks? Imagine the situation at the end of the circuit break. We know that increased hospitalisations and deaths are sadly “baked in” (to use Jonathan Van Tam’s phrase). Public concerns about the virus tend to reflect these numbers but, obviously, they lag current behaviour and, therefore, infections.
Would any Government lift restrictions at a point when deaths are rising and ICUs are full? The likely response of any Government would be to extend the circuit break for another week or two or more. We might easily find ourselves in a full-blown lockdown by accident.
I think it is possible that this problem can be overcome but it would require a degree of strategic thinking, communication discipline and consensus-building that has not always been apparent in recent months – or perhaps recent years. At the time of announcing a circuit breaker lockdown, it would need to be explicit that the time period would be fixed and that it would not be extended under any circumstances. Even if our hospitals were overwhelmed and deaths at tragically high levels, the circuit would still be broken. It would not be an easy message but if that point could be made and the rationale explained at the point of announcement and throughout the period, the public would understand.
As yet, Keir Starmer has not made that case. As a consequence, my concern is that we find ourselves in a new lockdown lasting months. That might not be the wrong response given where we are – but if we find ourselves there, it should be as a consequence of a conscious decision not be default. If what is really proposed is a stop-start response to lockdowns, we have to be willing to start as well as stop.