Will Local Lockdowns Be The Story Of The Summer?

Boris Johnson’s ‘doers’ v ‘ditherers’ charge is a dangerous one to make.

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Pillar fight

Last week it was “cluster-busting”, this week he was back to his favourite “whack-a-mole” game. Boris Johnson has long known that local lockdowns are central to any medium-term strategy for easing the covid restrictions that he thinks are squeezing the life out of the economy. But while both those phrases are the sort of thing you’d expect from well-upholstered former Daily Telegraph columnist, are they the mark of a prime minister seriously gripping a pandemic?

Johnson certainly looked riled when Keir Starmer asked him in PMQs if he regretted “being so flippant” about his dismissal of fears of mass beach gatherings, days before Bournemouth sands had to be closed down. And the charge of flippancy is one that the Labour leader will probably be returning to repeatedly through the next few months.

Addressing the Local Government Conference today, Starmer said the UK could be in local lockdowns “for months and months” and “it is going to be the story of the summer if we are not careful”. But it will only be the story if there are major cases like Leicester’s, where travel and other restrictions are now effectively in force on the population because the situation was allowed to spiral out of control.

The blame game over Leicester is well underway. Johnson flatly denied the main charge against him today, that the council was only passed data on Pillar 1 tests for covid (NHS and care worker tests, and tests in hospitals) but not for Pillar 2 tests (drive-through, walk-in and home tests among the community). The PM said that in fact both had been shared “not just with Leicester, but with all authorities across the country”.

Starmer should have perhaps focused not on the data per se, but on the fact that postcode or street-level data was not passed on until last Thursday. He should also have pushed a point he made later at the LGA, that local public health chiefs currently don’t even have the powers to lock down areas (areas that they know better than anyone in Whitehall). To nip an outbreak in the bud, you need the right data and the right powers to do so quickly.

Government sources vigorously dispute the Labour narrative, saying they wrote to all councils last Monday to explain postcode data but didn’t hear back from Leicester until two days later. Local Mayor Sir Peter Soulsby comes in for heavy criticism too.

But ultimately the fact remains that it took until this Monday to lockdown a problem that was identified three weeks earlier. The PM let the cat out of the bag when he said the government “first took notice” on 8 June - that was ten days before Matt Hancock first told a No10 press conference of a flare up in case numbers.‌

And the wrong kind of stats are what continue to dog Johnson. We may not find out until next Thursday whether the government hit his end-of-June target of a 24-hour turnaround for tests. Tomorrow the latest NHS Test and Trace figures are out and ministers will be desperately hoping they have improved after going backwards last week. Remember Dido Harding told MPs that there would be a fully functioning system at local level by the end of June? Leicester suggests it’s not fully functioning yet.

For many weeks now the actual number of people tested has been missing from official data. As it happens we do know how many people are tested daily in Pillar 1 (run by Public Health England and based in NHS labs). It’s Pillar 2 (run by private labs for community testing) where this crucial number has been listed as ‘unavailable’. There has never been a proper explanation for that failure.

Similarly, there remains the big mystery of how many posted-out tests are actually completed. It’s the postal tests that have constantly inflated the overall testing figures. Just to take today for example, 52,000 postal tests contributed to the 133,000 total. Without postal tests, Hancock’s own 100,000 a day target would rarely be met. At some point, the UK Statistics Authority may want to push more on just why postal tests should be counted at all, unless their return is verified.

The figures would be even lower without the added inflation of ‘antibody’ tests (aka Pillar 3), which have little practical use for test-and-trace (and little clinical value because there is not much evidence of immunity). If you took away both antibody and postal tests, just 58,813 tests were done as of 9am on June 30. Yes the overall testing capacity hit a record 294,258, but without full numbers of people tested or postal tests completed it seems academic.‌

Boris Johnson speaks during prime minister's questions in the House of Commons.
Boris Johnson speaks during prime minister's questions in the House of Commons.

Without daily No.10 press conferences, these numbers disappear from public view. And you could argue that Johnson is being as equally cynical about ‘local lockdowns’, hoping that because the vast majority of the population are not affected, they will focus more on ‘Super Saturday’’s pub drinks, restaurant family meals and individual haircuts. Even the football is back on.‌

Yet the PM would be wiser to assume that most people actually worry their area could be the next Leicester. And he ought too perhaps to look more closely into just what links all of the Top 10 areas revealed today as having the highest per head rates of covid cases. The list is as follows: Leicester (with 140.2 cases per 100,000 population) Bradford (69.4) Barnsley (54.7) Rochdale (53.6) Bedford (42) Oldham (38.6) Rotherham (33.6) Tameside (33.3) Blackburn with Darwen (32.9) Kirklees (30.3).

What unites all of them is not just poverty, but significant Bame populations, particularly Asian communities. Is it the particular susceptibility of Asian communities to the disease that is in play? The close-knit, intergenerational ties? Overcrowded housing? Unregulated workplaces? A lack of translation facilities for healthcare? Or all of the above? Yet another reason why the government’s Bame review of Covid should come up with some urgent findings and solutions.

And the urgency is lacking for many. Johnson tried to claim today that “we are the doers, they [Labour] are the ditherers”. Yet for a government that was slow to lockdown, slow to get testing up to standard and PPE to everyone who needed it, and still has major problems with testing and tracing, the dithering charge looks dangerously like a self-own.

Quote Of The Day

“I am not going to give a figure for the number of job losses that may or may not take place”

Boris Johnson

Wednesday Cheat Sheet

Up to three million Hong Kong residents are to be offered the chance to settle in the UK and ultimately apply for citizenship in the wake of China’s new security law, Boris Johnson announced.

More than 12,000 people in the UK are set to lose their jobs after a raft of firms announced cuts in the past 48 hours, including high street retailers and aviation firms.

Donald Trump risks “undermining” global collaboration on Covid-19 by buying up the world’s supplies of a drug treatment for the virus, the British government has warned.

China should be barred from any role in either the UK’s 5G network or its nuclear energy programme, shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy has said.

Rebecca Long-Bailey finally took down her tweet that Maxine Peake was an absolute ‘diamond’.

SNP MP Kirsty Blackman has announced she will step down as the party’s deputy leader at Westminster, citing the impact of lockdown on her mental health.

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