NHS workers training in PPE NHS workers training in PPE, Photo: Simon Davis / DFID

The lockdown needs to go national, but this needs to come with ramped up testing and other measures the government has failed to deliver, argues Alex Snowdon.

There is much talk about lockdowns at the moment. There are already partial lockdowns in place in a growing number of areas, especially in northern England and Scotland. But there are big questions emerging about the effectiveness of those measures, with mounting speculation that only a serious national lockdown will bring the pandemic under control. 

It should, before all else, be noted that we shouldn’t be faced with this dilemma. The government took too long to lock down in March, toying with the outrageous notion of ‘herd immunity’ and desperate to avoid even short-term interference in a market economy. It lifted some restrictions prematurely in early summer. It didn’t get test-and-trace in place properly, as many countries have done. 

In August the government gave people incentives to go to restaurants, despite increasing awareness that busy indoor spaces with poor ventilation are critically important in coronavirus transmission. It actively encouraged people to take foreign holidays, guaranteeing fresh cycles of transmission. 

In September it pushed yet more people back to workplaces, accompanied by full reopening of schools followed by university students packing into shared accommodation. No additional funding for staff and space was put into schools. The business needs of universities and the desire of landlords to extract rent from students were prioritised ahead of health and wellbeing. 

Legacy of failure 

It is no surprise that we are experiencing a resurgence of the virus. It wasn’t inevitable though. Different choices could have shaped different outcomes. 

In particular, the government should have established mass routine testing – publicly coordinated with fast results – as lockdown was eased. It ignored the WHO advice that a lockdown, while necessary, doesn’t eliminate the virus: it merely buys us time to get the ‘test, trace, isolate’ regime functioning effectively. 

In a Guardian article today Devi Sridhar, Edinburgh professor of global public health, points out that Vietnam, Taiwan and New Zealand have a combined death toll from the virus of 67. This is in large part thanks to getting ‘test, trace, isolate’ right from the start. These countries avoided prolonged lockdowns and severe economic damage as a result. 

For much of September, the infection numbers were doubling every week. The rate of increase has subsequently slowed down, but the numbers are still rising. This week has seen daily confirmed cases reaching 17,000 or higher. We know, too, that a number of other major European countries are experiencing major surges, while the global picture is poor. 

Hospital admissions and daily death figures are catching up, with 87 deaths reported yesterday. The number of daily admissions to hospitals is now the same as in mid-March. NHS capacity is rapidly becoming an issue because this time there is rarely the option of simply postponing non-Covid operations and treatments. 

Circuit break 

In this context we urgently need what senior scientific experts are calling a ‘circuit break’ – a relatively brief lockdown to prevent transmission levels worsening. This would be at least two weeks, but longer if necessary. A number of scientists argue that it should have happened two or three weeks ago. 

The local lockdown restrictions have had some success in slowing growth in infections, but they have not succeeded in bringing the numbers down. This is partly because they are local and partly because they are half-baked. There has been a determination from central government to avoid economic impact, so it is socialising that has been curtailed. But that simply doesn’t intervene properly in the places where the virus is circulating. 

The local dimension is also significant. Most people in affected areas have found the mix of national and local measures bewildering or unfair – or both. There has been growing cynicism towards the restrictions, with more non-compliance. 

Only a coordinated national approach can adequately convey the gravity of the situation and clearly communicate what people can and cannot do. Only a national strategy can ensure everyone gets the financial assistance they need (currently high numbers of people are not self-isolating when instructed for fear of losing pay). Only a national strategy can prevent growing geographical inequalities, disproportionately hitting more deprived areas. 

More than a lockdown 

We therefore need a nationwide and serious lockdown that extends to schools and workplaces, however briefly. But this cannot be enough on its own. 

Universities must be instructed to avoid face-to-face teaching until at least Christmas. In high-transmission areas, schools with significant outbreaks ought to close for staff and pupils to self-isolate. Foreign travel should be radically curtailed. The message that anyone who can work from home must be allowed to do so has to be enforced, with support for improving ventilation of workplaces that are still operating. 

This all requires substantial financial support. The furlough should be re-established with pay at a higher level than chancellor Rishi Sunak is currently offering. Workers who are self-isolating need to be guaranteed full sick pay. Schools and hospitals alike need extra funding urgently. 

Pubs, restaurants and other small businesses forced to close temporarily need support to sustain them, while those working in the cultural sector deserve better than a new condescending career guidance website. The money is there: enormous wealth is concentrated among the super-rich and should be redistributed. Just as importantly, the short-term economic pain is necessary to protect jobs and livelihoods in the longer term. 

Above all, testing needs to be brought in house, ramped up, and turned into the basis of a truly effective ‘test, trace, isolate’ system that brings the pandemic firmly under control. That means fast testing (with results back inside 24 hours), tracing that successfully reaches the vast majority of contacts, and proper support for people to self-isolate for two weeks. 

This is the sustainable alternative to a cycle of lockdown easing and reimposing that costs many thousands more lives, fuels social misery and does enormous economic damage. 

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Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.​ He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).

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