Almost a month after the government significantly eased lockdown restrictions, there are worrying signs that it may have gone too far too fast. Infection rates in England are increasing: one in 1,500 individuals is now estimated to be infected with Covid-19, up from one in 2,000 in early July, and the spread is now happening across the nation – in homes, workplaces, transport systems and pubs and restaurants – rather than being mostly limited to the healthcare sector. In the week that international data confirmed that England so far has experienced the worst excess mortality in the whole of Europe, leaving tens of thousands of families mourning loved ones taken from them too soon, this only serves as a stark reminder that there may be more pain yet to come.
Caught between a moment when the exponential spread of Covid-19 has been curtailed, but before there is a vaccine available, we are at an incredibly precarious point. The only way of stopping the spread of the virus remains through adaptations to human behaviour. Yet the collective sense that “we are all in it together”, which was so important in encouraging people to stick with the lockdown restrictions, seems to be at risk of breaking down as ministers seek to shift the blame on to the public for the rise in infection rates while individual MPs have made attempts to pin rising infection rates on Britain’s south Asian communities.
The increase in infection rates is far more likely to be a product of government policy than of loosening public compliance with restrictions. We have argued that in relaxing so many restrictions so quickly – and in delaying the introduction of mandatory mask-wearing in public spaces – the government took too great a risk with public health. Two weeks ago, the prime minister was bombastically insisting he could avoid imposing another national lockdown, likening it to a nuclear deterrent. Yet by Friday he was forced to adopt a more sombre tone as he delayed the introduction of some of the further easing that was due to come into place this weekend and confirmed the imposition of further restrictions across those swaths of north-east England where infection rates are high and rising. At least the government has proved willing to change course, although whether simply “squeezing the brakes”, as the prime minister put it, is sufficient to reverse the rise in infections very much remains to be seen.
There are still serious questions about whether now is the right time to introduce other significant relaxations, for example. People who have been able to work from home in recent months may be expected back in their office by their employer from this week; would it not be more sensible to keep public transport reserved for those who really need to be in their workplaces? It seems particularly brutal to expect those who have been shielding for four months to go back to work from Monday and to deny them access to statutory sick pay. Meanwhile, the government’s test-and-trace system, which, if it were operating as efficiently as it should, would certainly expand the level of relaxation the country could tolerate, is not up to par. According to Sage, the government’s scientific advisory group, we need to be finding and contacting 80% of people who have been in close contact with those confirmed to have the virus, yet across north-west England the contact rate is just 52%.
Johnson is well aware that scrutiny of his key decisions – to lock down late, to relax so many restrictions so quickly – will only intensify with time and hindsight. Rather than admit that they have made mistakes during a challenging national crisis, ministers have tended towards blaming the public for not complying with lockdown restrictions, despite the sometimes mixed messaging from the government, even as the prime minister insisted on defending a serious breach of the lockdown by his top adviser, Dominic Cummings.
Last week, this blame-shifting took a particularly toxic turn. The Tory backbencher Chris Whittaker asserted – without any evidence whatsoever – that the “vast majority” of people breaching lockdown were of black, Asian or minority ethnic origin, particularly from Muslim backgrounds. When asked about Whittaker’s racist comments, Johnson failed to distance himself from them. This is disgraceful and dangerous. There is no evidence that minority communities are breaching social distancing more frequently; moreover, they have suffered higher death rates, particularly among frontline workers including doctors, carers and bus drivers. For a prime minister to allow this narrative to go unchallenged shows the extent to which he will allow divisions that work to his political advantage to fester.
There is also an emerging narrative that young people may be to blame for rising infection rates; that they are callously socialising in bars and pubs without a care for the plight of their older relatives. This ignores the fact that the government has actively encouraged people to go out to eat and drink for the sake of the economy; that young people have broadly complied with the lockdown even though their circumstances – disproportionately living in house-shares and in insecure work – often make it more difficult for them to do so; and that it is this generation that will undoubtedly bear the biggest costs of the pandemic in terms of their long-term economic prospects.
The shift in course from the government is welcome, although many experts have cast doubt on whether it goes far enough to keep the virus under control. But this past week has shown that Johnson appears willing to risk fomenting racial division to avoid blame from voters for what he has got wrong so far. Not only is this utterly unconscionable at a time of rising Islamophobia, but it risks the very social cohesion and sense of collective endeavour that will be critical to keeping the virus under control in the weeks to come.