The UK government’s first attempt to control the Covid-19 pandemic in England through a regional tiered system was a failure. The rules were not tough or clear enough, and there were arguments about the way in which local areas were categorised by Whitehall. The tier system was in force for less than three weeks before a steep rise in Covid infections forced the government to replace it with the second national lockdown, which remains in force.
So the fundamental question to ask about the new English tier system that will operate from 2 December is whether it will be any more effective than the first one was. The answer is far from certain, not least because the new tiers, the details of which were published on Thursday, are not being introduced because the pandemic is now under greater control. Instead they are being brought in for essentially political reasons.
At any other period of the year, the second lockdown would be given more time to have an effect. The numbers of new cases, hospitalisations and deaths are not yet under control. There are some encouraging signs of a second lockdown effect; cases are down 19% on last week, for example. But the level of deaths remains very high. The decision to end the second lockdown is based more on Boris Johnson’s commitment – given in order to head off a Conservative backbench revolt – that it would end on 2 December “without a shred of doubt”, than on any conclusive proof that the transmission rate is now under control.
The fact that the new tier system will be tougher confirms that the previous effort was too lax. It also shows that the second Covid wave is stronger now than it was in October. In Thursday’s announcement, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, placed almost the whole of England into the strengthened tiers 2 and 3. Only Cornwall, the Scillies and the Isle of Wight are to be in tier 1. That means there will be tough lockdown measures for everyone else, and the most severe tier 3 controls will continue in the majority of urban areas except London. This is close to being a national lockdown in all but name.
The Johnson government is playing Russian roulette with the English people. On the one hand, it is clearly aware that tighter measures are still needed for public health reasons. On the other, it wants to appease continuing Tory backbench anger and to navigate the festive season without being accused of stealing Christmas.
The upshot is measures that might work if testing was more efficient, if self-isolation was easier to enforce and if Christmas did not risk triggering another spike in infections. None of these things is the case. Instead, Mr Hancock has fallen back on his familiar instinct to get out of a tight spot by over-promising about an innovation – lateral flow swab testing – whose effectiveness is not proven and which is not yet universally accessible. In an echo of the first test-and-trace effort, these quicker tests have failed to reach large parts of the more vulnerable population in trials in Liverpool. Not for the first time, airy assurances are being made before the system has been properly reviewed and without full transparency.
Every government has to juggle different and difficult pressures over Covid. The danger for the Johnson government is that this package will end up satisfying no one, from the health professionals and key workers who warn against premature easing, to the local authorities who feel they are ignored and then dumped on, to the Tory MPs who are bored with the pandemic and increasingly want to ignore it.
Mr Hancock faced a succession of backbench sceptics on Thursday from counties whose voters resent, not without justice in some cases, being placed in tier 2 (or, in the cases of Kent and Lincolnshire, in tier 3). He only bought them off with the promise that the allocations will be reviewed on 16 December. That ensures that pressure to loosen the new tier system in time for Christmas is certain to mount. That would be very dangerous. Ministers have made a rod for their own backs by again following the politics not the science.