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“We know from experience that the best thing to do in the face of this virus is to act fast, not to wait to see its growth continue – and we do not rule out further action.” As he announced London and other parts of the south east would go into the highest tier of Covid restrictions this week, Matt Hancock sounded decisive, forthright and bold.
The numbers for the capital, Essex and Hertfordshire were certainly alarming. And the health secretary sounded like someone who had learned from the past two waves of this awful virus that acting quickly and firmly was crucial.
But when he was asked why he would within a week be relaxing the rules again over Christmas, the contrast was painfully obvious. Talk of acting decisively and boldly went out of the window. In its place came fudge and obfuscation, dither and blather.
To be fair, both Hancock and chief medical officer Chris Whitty were distinctly uneasy, if not queasy, about the prospect of a mass festive booze-up letting Covid rip once more. Whitty in particular used the third person to explain the Christmas decision, saying “the feeling was this is a very important time for families…”
Under repeated questioning, Hancock fell back onto the idea that this was all about “personal responsibility”, about the public taking a minimalist interpretation of the rules, not a maximalist one. Boris Johnson himself dipped a toe into this language on Saturday (curiously in a Tory fundraiser not an address to the nation), saying he would “urge people to err on the side of caution rather than, I’m afraid, have a big blow-out with multiple households”. But there’s a difference between “erring” and just going “er….well….er…you decide”.
The health secretary did eventually give a vaguely bit of concrete advice on Christmas, coming close to saying we should self isolate for a few days before meeting grandparents. “The best thing you can do if you want to see elderly relatives at Christmas is to be extremely careful now about who you see,” is how he put it.
Yet that advice on social isolation seems absent in London, with Gavin Williamson threatening legal action against councils that want schools to close early. The final few days of school before Christmas are often hardly exam-intensive, so why wouldn’t it make sense for young children to effectively isolate for 10 days (the new approved period) before meeting granny and grandpa?
University students have been forced to do that, so why not students aged 15 to 18? Students will be staggering return in the New Year too. Shaun Bailey, the Tory candidate for Mayor of London, had what seemed a sensible suggestion, to also delay the return of schools by a week in January, just to add an extra means of tempering the Christmas uptick in cases.
Hancock just wouldn’t answer the question as to whether there were any circumstances under which he would cancel the Christmas relaxations. Was that because he was not ruling anything out? Or not ruling anything in? On the one hand was that line that “we do not rule out further action”, on the other was the emphasis on people wanting to meet up after a hard year.
In some ways, it would just have been more honest if he had just said “look, our modelling shows that if we told people not to mix households, they’d do it anyway”. Changing course would of course run the danger of mixed messaging too, although in many ways that ship has sailed ever since the meaningless “stay alert” became the government’s lame public health slogan. Some polling shows it was that bit of blancmange, before Dominic Cummings’ eyesight failure, that started the slide in public confidence in Johnson from the stratospheric levels earlier this year.
It’s possible that “further action” could be localised in the hardest hit areas, with a “Tier 4” set of restrictions on households. Would the government risk a three-day rather than five-day period of mixed households? Would it risk reducing the number of bubbles from three to two? Would it really face mass disobedience if it did so? Imagine if Leeds and Manchester come out of Tier 3 for a mere few weeks, only to see Christmas surges put them back into the high level again?
Which brings us to this whole issue of “personal responsibility”. The government decided during the first wave of this pandemic that in fact leaving conduct to personal responsibility wouldn’t be either morally right or clinically effective as a way of combating the virus. There was instead a “government responsibility” to act.
Given the asymptomatic nature of this virus, the actions of a badly behaved (or ill-informed) minority can ruin things for everyone as it only takes a few super spreaders to wreak havoc very quickly. That’s precisely why Hancock famously stepped up the rhetoric at one point to say: ”This advice is not a request – it is an instruction.”
In fact, the government hardened its stance steadily through even the “unlockdown” of the summer and early autumn, turning “guidance” into actual legal requirements and prohibitions. Given that hospitalisations are now getting dangerously high (this week is very close to the second wave peak and in Wales some hospitals are near capacity in a way they weren’t in the first lockdown), citing “personal responsibility” sounds blithe at best, negligent at worst.
There could be some cynicism at work here. YouGov found back in September that 49% of Britons believed that the public would be more to blame for a second coronavirus wave, compared to 31% who think the government would primarily be responsible. “Nothing to do with me, govt” could be the Johnson thinking.
There could also be another very crude calculation going on in Whitehall right now, given the political pain of curtailing Christmas mixing: ministers may be thinking the public will swallow a Covid equivalent of “Blue Monday”. That’s the third week in January, when dark nights, cold weather, looming credit card bills and post-blow-out diets really start to bite. It’s also the most likely time the lagging hospital rates could force a fresh, third national lockdown.
But later January is also about the time that New Year’s resolutions tend to be broken too. If there’s a 2021 lockdown at the same time, what are the odds that even more of the public start using “personal responsibility” to guide their conduct? Don’t forget that a New Year third wave would be different from the first two waves because it would coincide exactly with the time the NHS is every year under most strain.
There is an alternative: tighter Christmas restrictions that stress the priority is to suppress and contain the virus until March, by which time vaccination of the most vulnerable should be complete. That would be bold and decisive to some, foolhardy to others. But at least it would show a sense of government responsibility – rather than an abdication of it.