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Boris Johnson’s hopes of containing the second wave of Covid-19 through local lockdowns have failed. The failure has many causes, some of which are deep-seated. The fact of failure is, though, not in doubt. Covid cases in Britain rose by a shocking 17,540 on Thursday. The test-and-trace system recorded its lowest daily contact rate since the pandemic began. Hospitals are warning that they could be overwhelmed by the end of October if cases continue to climb at current levels.
Not all of these failures should be placed at the Johnson government’s door, although many of them must be. The speed and scale of the pandemic would have been a hugely demanding challenge to any government, even to a more obviously competent and focused one than this. Nor is it fair to pretend that Britain’s failure to contain the second wave is unique. Other and better governments in western Europe, as well as the UK devolved administrations, are struggling too. France, Spain and Ireland, among others, are facing comparable surges. Even Germany has warned that infections are spiralling out of control.
Even so, the Johnson government has presided over what the political scientist Professor Sir Ivor Crewe, in a new essay for the Reform thinktank, calls “the most egregious failure of British governance in living memory”. It is now faced with the urgent need to reset its Covid goals and policies once more. New measures to combat the virus in England are being widely trailed. A tiered system of controls, based on local threat levels, will be applicable across the whole of England, but applied locally. The tiers will cover such things as the circumstances in which pubs and restaurants should be closed, families be permitted to meet up, and people be allowed to take overnight stays in at-risk areas.
Tiers of this kind make sense and could be an improvement on the increasingly confusing tangle of restrictions now in place. Tiers would, though, have been more effective if they had been introduced months ago. In the short run, they will seem to many people like just another damned thing, adding a further layer of regulation and causing confusion, not clarifying matters. Moreover, they will come at a time when many existing local lockdowns are not working. With considerable justice, they will be seen as further evidence that the government is flailing about in the face of the pandemic.
Covid has shone lights on divisions in British society on the basis of age, race, wealth and region. The last of these, in particular, is now feeding directly into pandemic politics in an important new way. With its Brexit-derived sense of itself as an insurgency against the establishment, the Johnson government would like to take all the pandemic policy decisions itself. It would like to redesign and deliver the public services that must bear the weight of the fight on the front line. It has no time for local government and other agencies that raise objections or want to do things differently.
Earlier on, it became clear that the devolved governments would not put up with this. Now it is the turn of local governments in northern England. Councils, mayors and MPs from the north are indignant about the lack of consultation, information and resources. The second wave is bringing this indignation to a head. The imminent end of the furlough scheme makes new shutdowns far more damaging. Local bodies know what is needed better than Whitehall. They need the powers, the money and the trust to help deliver for their areas. National and local should work together, not against one another.
This is not solely about Covid-19. Conservatives and Labour are now battling for political ascendancy in northern England. This is not necessarily helping. “The problem of the north isn’t going away any time soon,” concludes Tom Hazeldine in his recent book The Northern Question, which is subtitled “a history of a divided country”. The 2020 iteration of that division, underpinned by the tensions between the north’s post-industrial economic decline and its exclusion from effective political agency, has been supercharged by Covid-19. Ignored politically for so long, the north is now more urgently in need of a fair and democratic local resolution than ever.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: The Guardian view on the Covid second wave: deepening the divide | Editorial | Opinion