We shouldn’t be here. Back in June, England had the opportunity to suppress the virus. With a functional test and trace system, support to help people self-isolate, a robust set of regulations to keep work and leisure spaces safe and a clear public communications campaign, we could have suppressed coronavirus into the winter.
But the opportunity was squandered. Worse, as restrictions were lifted on 4 July – what became known colloquially as “Freedom Saturday” – we were encouraged to relax, to travel back to work, to go to the pub, to mix and mingle. Meanwhile, the country’s dysfunctional, centralised and privately-run test and trace system lurched from one calamity to the next. World class? At failing to contact people and succeeding in losing data, perhaps.
The virus never went away. In some deprived communities, such as Bolton and Rochdale, infections remained endemic. As the summer faded we moved indoors, and schools and then universities returned. Infections began to rise again, slowly at first, but then faster and faster. The signs were unmistakable. If the government did nothing, England would be back to a similar number of cases that we saw in March, and the death rate would begin to climb again. The NHS would be overwhelmed.
On 21 September the scientific advisory body Sage produced a paper with a simple message: do something now or else lose control over the virus. That “something” would have to be sufficient to reduce infections to a level where the virus could be controlled without shutting businesses and curtailing livelihoods. At a minimum, that would mean restricting social mixing, closing pubs, offering university classes online and working from home.
On the day that advice was given, there were 4,696 infections across the UK. The government hummed and hawed, dillied and dallied, and by the time ministers finally made a decision on 12 October, three weeks later, infections had tripled to some 14,000 cases per day. If anything, this alarming growth meant they had to go further than the Sage advice to bring the virus under control. So what did they do?
Video: Dr Hilary tells Brit to ignore dangerous coronavirus theory about surfaces (Birmingham Mail)
Rather than following the science, the government plumped for an anaemic compromise between its scientific advisers and those arguing against any new restrictions. England’s new three tier system still falls far short of what Sage advised back in September. Ministers couldn’t even bring themselves to close pubs, instead opting for a nonsensical policy in England whereby pubs in areas under a tier 3 lockdown can remain open and serve alcohol so long as they also serve a “substantial” meal. This might keep Wetherspoons open, but it certainly won’t suppress coronavirus.
We now find ourselves occupying the worst of all worlds: a limbo where the pandemic drags on and causes more damage, leaving us hopeless and praying for a vaccine. The government’s policy of continuous local lockdowns will disrupt everyday lives and damage businesses, but it won’t suppress the virus. England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty conceded as much in a recent press briefing: in an extraordinary piece of political theatre, he followed the prime minister’s announcement of the three-tier system with a warning that these new measures won’t work.
It’s not that people are unable to put up with hardship or suffering. Some amount of pandemic fatigue is inevitable. As we saw during the first wave, people can and will make considerable sacrifices for a common cause – if they see a point to it. But people aren’t stupid. They won’t simply suffer for the sake of it. If they do give up on these lockdown measures, it won’t be because they have failed: it will be because the government has failed them.
A “circuit breaker” now seems inevitable. But little will be achieved by a temporary lockdown unless we use this time to reset our overall response. It seems this has been entirely forgotten; not a word was said yesterday by the prime minister – either in parliament or at his press conference – about resetting testing, providing support for those self-isolating or improving regulations. It seems that we have learned nothing from the errors of June, and have given no consideration to how we might avoid repeating them.
In the end the problem is what it has always been. We have a government entirely without a strategy to deal with this pandemic. We have a cabinet entirely without a vision or a strength of purpose, reacting in panic to events as they arise rather than devising the means to get on top of them. And we have a prime minister who craves approval and wants to please everyone, who lacks the strength to face down his backbenchers and ends up with half-measures that help nobody. At a time when we need it most, the country has been saddled with a woeful lack of leadership.
• Stephen Reicher is a professor of psychology at the University of St Andrews