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The policy and politics of lockdown

By Gareth Jones
14 October 2020

By Gareth Jones, Public Affairs

Developments in Westminster today have been dominated by further questions over whether a "circuit breaker" lockdown should be introduced in England in the coming weeks to bring the virus under control. At Prime Minister’s Questions today, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer again called for a short, limited lockdown, in line with SAGE recommendations, to be introduced to help buy time to "save lives, fix testing, and save the NHS". The Prime Minister responded by saying he hopes that the three-tier system would "avoid the misery of a national lockdown", but also stressed that he “rules nothing out” in combating the virus.

The policy effectiveness of a “circuit breaker” lockdown are highly contested. The SAGE recommendations, published on Monday, said a 14-day lockdown in October would significantly reduce the prevalence of the infection in December and would lead to a substantial reduction in deaths and hospitalisations during the subsequent winter months. This is obviously a major benefit in managing what could be one of the most challenging periods of the pandemic. There are, however, a number of important questions to this approach. Firstly, the effectiveness of a circuit breaker lockdown would not be known until well after the two-week period had been completed, leading to questions over whether the lockdown will be extended from two weeks -- to potentially months. The bigger questions revolve around the significant economic costs and social impact of lockdowns and whether such lockdowns can be sustained, particularly once the economic impacts, most notably rising unemployment, become more and more prevalent. These questions and doubts are compounded by a general uncertainty over the government’s overall strategy and fundamental questions about how best to balance public health and economic challenges.

The politics of a ‘circuit breaker’ however look a lot more straightforward. Keir Starmer has adopted a position where he has taken the initiative and aligned himself with official government advice and in-line with the majority of public opinion (a YouGov poll published this afternoon revealed that 68% of the public support a circuit breaker, versus 20% who oppose). He also has the vast majority of his party united behind his position. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson has tried to adopt a middle-ground approach through the government’s three-tiered regional system, that he hopes will control the virus, while limiting the economic pain and appeases the lockdown sceptics in his party – but has the potential to do none of these. Any move to implement a circuit breaker now would be bitterly resisted by the libertarian wing of his party (which remains highly influential in Parliament and the media) and by his own Chancellor. If cases continue to rise at an alarming rate, then the Prime Minister could be forced into a decision that has major political repercussions. 

It is now clear that the political consensus over the UK’s policy response that existed at the beginning of the pandemic is coming to an end, with more and more diverging views across the political spectrum. This is perhaps most evident in the current role of the devolved governments. In Northern Ireland, it was announced today that schools will close from Monday and pubs and restaurants face new restrictions on Friday. Wales has announced that it will ban people coming from UK hotspots (the tier two and tier three areas). Meanwhile, Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has also advised Scots against travelling to high risk areas of England. There is no doubt that the pandemic and the contested policy response is fuelling separatist and nationalist sentiments. One of the most startling pieces of news today was a poll published today by Ipsos Mori showing a record level of support (58%) for Scottish Independence.