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CORONAVIRUS

Why England isn't staying locked down during Lockdown 2

Evidence shows the public is treating restrictions with far less reverence than the first lockdown

“Now is the time to take action because there is no alternative,” a sombre-faced UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on October 31.

At this dire proclamation, the rumours were confirmed. Goodbye the much-criticised three-tier system; hello to the second lockdown.

The rules are outlined in this graphic.

England's lockdown rules. 
England's lockdown rules. 

But in its first weekend, people were most definitely not staying at home. Instead, masses of humanity roamed footloose and apparently Covid-free across England’s green yet restricted lands.

Car parks were packed with serried ranks of vehicles, and the pubs and restaurants operating as takeaways were doing a brisk trade.

How far the food and drink being procured was actually “taken away” from their premises is a rather moot point.

To adapt the adage, “lock me down once, shame on you; lock me down twice, shame on me”, appeared to be the prevailing mood.

Increased mobility and retail custom

First, the hard and fast evidence. The chart below shows mobility trends in the UK as a whole, and specifically those in London, over the course of the pandemic.

Mobility trends across the UK show far greater levels of movement in the first days of Lockdown 2 than in Lockdown 1.
Mobility trends across the UK show far greater levels of movement in the first days of Lockdown 2 than in Lockdown 1.

The UK dataset (orange line) reveals that while there was a slight dip in mobility in the days leading up to the second lockdown, and during the first lockdown weekend, it pales into insignificance when compared with the plunge in movement during the first lockdown.

The London dataset further substantiates the trend. On March 23, the first day of the first lockdown, mobility in London was at 9 per cent of its usual volume.

On November 5, the first day of the second lockdown, mobility in London was at 28 per cent of its usual volume.

In other words, London’s streets were more than three times as busy on the first day of this lockdown.

The picture in retail is also markedly different.

Data from retail analyst Springboard shows that footfall was 15 per cent lower on the first day of this lockdown than on March 23, but 79.6 per cent higher on Friday compared with March 24.

The apparent anomaly of more retail footfall on the first day of Lockdown 1 can be ascribed to panic buying, which has not been a factor this time round, says Springboard insights director Diane Wehrle.

In later days the trend was spectacularly reversed.

The nadir of the year-on-year drop in footfall during Lockdown 1 came on the first Saturday when it plunged 87 per cent. The average fall this time, to date, has been 64 per cent.

“Garden centres, dog groomers, therapists, etc, are still open this time so there are more people out and about,” Ms Wehrle said.

“We also go to shops in masks and feel we have a better understanding of lockdown.”

Mobility and retail trends are the symptoms of a far broader lockdown malaise. So why has England suddenly become a nation of lockdown refuseniks?

Government has lost public consent

Heather Widdows, professor of global ethics at the University of Birmingham, says it is a matter of consent.

“If we think about consenting we have to think about being informed. Consent is always about being informed,” Ms Widdows said.

“You need to know what the risks and benefits are, and people are getting mixed messages.

Compare it to March when the kids were off school, it was really obvious what [the government] was trying to do.

“Now kids are going to school on public transport and effectively have year-group-size bubbles.

“It’s clear [the government] is making it up as it goes along and the public knows this.

“Many people don’t know what the rules are and this is unsurprising given the contradictory information that has been given throughout the pandemic.”

The information vacuum is leading to a sense of public mutiny, Ms Widdows said.

Mixed messages and a lack of information are making scenes like this at Borough Market in London inevitable, believes Professor Widdows. EPA
Mixed messages and a lack of information are making scenes like this at Borough Market in London inevitable, believes Professor Widdows. EPA

Dr Ilan Kelman, of the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction at University College London, echoes the point.

“Authority figures did not adhere to [the first lockdown]," Dr Kelman said. “They told us what to do and then people in charge did not obey the measures.”

Dominic Cummings, anyone?

But Dr Kelman said compliance with lockdown measures is something of a bonus. It is everyday behaviour that can bring about a return to normal life faster.

“Regardless of lockdown, individuals should be wearing face coverings in indoor public places,” he said.

“If you can work from home then you should stay at home. When you are outside, just keep your distance.

"Lockdown or not, these are things we should be doing.”

Robert Dingwall, professor of sociology at Nottingham Trent University, said the nature of Covid-19 is a reason for the reluctance this time round.

“There is a big difference between Covid and flu,” Prof Dingwall said.

“If this had been a flu pandemic, we would have known how to make vaccines and people could have been given a very clear time limit as to how long the privations would last.”

With the news breaking on Monday that Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine is up to 90 per cent effective, he said that “people will be looking forward” and that there will be a further “fraying of compliance”.

Undoubtedly, the UK government’s wish to make people comply through fear, so successful in the first wave, will be made more difficult by the news.

Mr Johnson’s plea for caution later on Monday over the vaccine news was a tacit acknowledgment that the second lockdown has become that much harder to implement. Although this has not stopped the country's health service from being placed on red alert to roll out the vaccine within three weeks.

“Repeated attempts to renew the level of fear are inconsistent with people’s own experience of the pandemic,” Prof Dingwall said. “Their willingness to comply has faded.”

Updated: November 10, 2020 06:49 PM

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