Britain scrambles to avoid a second lockdown

  • >> Benjamin Mueller and Megan Specia, The New York Times
    Published: 2020-09-19 02:29:12 BdST

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Pedestrians, some wearing protective face masks, walk along Oxford Street, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in London, Britain, September 17, 2020. Reuters

Local shutdowns are creeping across England. A vaunted testing system is on the verge of collapse. And Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain is contemplating temporary closures of restaurants and pubs to corral a second surge of the coronavirus that threatens to land Europe’s worst-affected country in the same predicament it faced this spring.

For Britons, the sinking realisation that the government may have fiddled away a summer’s worth of gains against the coronavirus has brought fresh worries about jobs and rising anger at Johnson’s contradictory edicts.

In hard-hit northeast England, new rules banned people from meeting almost everyone — even relatives — from other households and forced restaurants and pubs to close at 10 p.m. In all, roughly 10 million people, most of them in central and northern England, are now subject to heightened local restrictions intended to suppress the virus before a stricter lockdown becomes necessary.

Johnny Harrison, an artist based in Newcastle, in northeast England, described the new controls as another “kick in the teeth” after months of national lockdown gave way to a gradual reopening this summer.

He added, “What’s more worrying is, will there be a national lockdown, and will this take us right into next year?”

Scientists, including those advising the government, are divided on that question. But many worried that the two-week period of restaurant and pub closures now under consideration — a sort of “circuit-break,” in the words of government advisers — would not be enough to contain a virus that is now estimated to be doubling in Britain as quickly as every seven days.

Johnson acknowledged Friday that he was considering stricter measures and spoke bluntly about the second wave of the virus now advancing across Britain.

“There’s no question, as I’ve said for several weeks now, that we could expect and we are now seeing a second wave coming in,” he said in a television interview. “I don’t think anybody wants to go into a second lockdown, but clearly when you look at what is happening, you’ve got to wonder whether we need to go further than the rule of six that we brought in on Monday.” He was referring to a new law forbidding social gatherings of more than six people.

The government, adamant only weeks ago that people patronise pubs and restaurants, is now considering pleading with people to do the opposite. Over the summer, Johnson even offered people a government-subsidised discount to eat at restaurants and pubs through a program called Eat Out to Help Out.

“It does seem ironic,” said Jonathan Ball, a professor of molecular virology at the University of Nottingham, “that after encouraging mass attendance at pubs, cafes and restaurants through Eat Out to Help Out that we are now contemplating restricting or closing those activities down.”

The latest signs of the virus’s resurgent march through Britain left the government little choice. The R number, a measure of how many people on average a single patient will infect, rose to between 1.1 and 1.4, the government said Friday, meaning that on average every 10 people infected will spread the virus to between 11 and 14 other people. Any number greater than 1 is a worrisome indication that the epidemic is growing.

In the week ending Sept. 10, there were roughly 6,000 new cases of the coronavirus every day outside hospitals and nursing homes in England, the government’s official statistics authority estimated, nearly a doubling of new infections from the week before.

“We need to learn the lessons of the spring,” Susan Michie, director of the Centre for Behaviour Change at University College London and a member of a government advisory group, said on Twitter. Every day’s delay in implementing “measures to restrict transmission when it is increasing exponentially will be expensive in terms of health and lives in the short term and the economy in the long term.”

Johnson is considering what the BBC described as two weeks of closures or limited hours for restaurants, pubs and other hospitality businesses. Scientists said the goal appeared to be to slow down, but not stop, transmission of the virus by restricting risky, nonessential activities, like eating at restaurants.

Some government scientists, though, are pressing Johnson to go further by imposing something closer to a full national lockdown, including the closure of schools, for two weeks in October, news reports said. By implementing the closures around an October schools holiday, the scientists hope to limit the disruption of a school year that just opened in early September.

The reopening of schools has already driven up demand for coronavirus tests as families fret about children coming down with coughs and sniffles. That has thrown the already creaky testing program into crisis, with four times as many people seeking tests as were able to get one, officials said this week. The government said Friday that “there has been clear evidence of an increase in the number of people testing positive for COVID-19 aged 2 to 11 years,” among other age groups.

Government scientists have now identified more than 100 outbreaks or clusters in educational settings, most of them in primary or secondary schools.

And while rising infection rates among people in their 20s were the biggest cause for concern in recent weeks, older people are now getting sicker more often, too.

Outside Fox Primary School near Hyde Park in Kensington, parents relieved to have their children back in school reacted with a mix of weariness and puzzlement to the prospect of new restrictions.

Irina Orlova, who was picking up her daughter, said the school was keeping children in bubbles and asking them to wash their hands regularly. But she said the government’s messaging was more difficult to keep track of.

“I have a feeling that people don’t really take it seriously anymore,” she said. “At some point everyone has a story or situation why they should or should not go out.”

At the same school, Richard Ulla, who was picking up his son and his son’s friend, said government rules about how to socialise had become so complicated that almost no one understood them. He worried that another full-fledged lockdown would be devastating.

“The verbal communication through the media, in general, has been very confusing for a lot of people,” he said.

In Newcastle, Harrison, the artist, said that as the virus returned and the government cracked down, plans for new exhibitions felt as if they were “evaporating on a daily basis.”

“We are getting so much information from the central government about what you can and can’t do, and the local government is trying to absorb that and reinterpret that and make it relevant for where we are and what the situation is here,” he said.

Particularly puzzling, he said, was the government’s forgiving attitude toward gatherings at restaurants and pubs, even as it forbids people to visit each other’s homes.

“There’s a sort of strange ‘Keep the economy going but at the same time look as if you are doing something’ kind of language going on,” he said. “And it’s very difficult to interpret.”

©2020 The New York Times Company