Boris Johnson’s top team is grappling with a spike in coronavirus infections that’s seen the UK outbreak spreading exponentially again.
Ministers are trying to decide how to balance tackling the virus with helping the economy recover from its worst recession in more than a century, sparking divisions within the Cabinet over the best way forward.
Here’s what could happen next:
More local lockdowns
The existing “whack a mole” strategy has already seen vast swathes of the country under local lockdown, restricting social contact between households and imposing early closing times on pubs, bars and restaurants.
The measures cover some 10 million people, and there’s only so far they can go before they start resembling a national lockdown again. London Mayor Sadiq Khan is pushing urgently for measures in the capital, which has so far avoided fresh restrictions. Health Secretary Matt Hancock has said people in London could be told to work from home again this week.
The government’s strategy so far has been to try to keep schools and businesses open while stamping down on social interaction. This month, ministers replaced complicated rules on social mixing with a blanket rule than no more than six people could meet socially, unless they were all from the same household. The next step would be to ban people from different households from mixing altogether.
“We’re at a really critical moment and I think that if we don’t make sure that we’re adhering to all the various different requirements – the rule of six, self isolation, quarantine when required, then we are going to end up needing to apply stronger brakes on this,” Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said on Monday.
Work From Home
The advice at the beginning of the pandemic was that everyone who could, should work from home. But as the outbreak died down over the summer, the government started encouraging people to return to their offices, particularly in city centers where bars, cafes and shops that relied on commuters were struggling.
But with the virus on the rise again, the authorities may tell people to stay in their homes again.
Johnson has compared the idea of a second national lockdown to a nuclear deterrent — the option of last resort, and ministers consistently say they want to avoid such a radical step at all costs. But gaining traction is the idea of a so-called circuit breaker — a two week shutdown, perhaps coinciding with the half-term holiday in schools next month.
Asked about the notion on Sunday, Hancock said “that was another proposal that came from the scientists,” and stressed officials were looking at “all” options. Enforcing the rules is seen as key.
“We’ll be increasingly stringent on the people who are not following the rules – if everybody follows the rules then we can avoid further national lockdowns,” Hancock said. “But we, of course, have to be prepared to take action if that’s what’s necessary.”
Just about the last thing the government will countenance, having rested a lot of political capital in getting them open again in September. Ministers are concerned that having children at home hits the ability of their parents to work effectively, whether from home or in their workplaces.
Test and trace
The government says it will increase testing to 500,000 a day by the end of October, but the system is ridden with well-publicized failings. If the government can make the system more effective, speeding up the time it takes to give people results and then reaching more of their close contacts to tell them to self-isolate, the U.K. could begin to bear down more effectively on its infection rate.
The government has ensured it has orders for six different vaccines should they succeed in clinical trials. Hancock said on Sunday that “there is still hope that we will get one of the vaccines over the line this year.”