Back to lockdown: the challenge ahead

Back to lockdown: the challenge ahead

“The mid-winter Covid nightmare the Government feared most is upon us,” said The Sun. This week, in a bid to halt a dramatic surge in cases of the new, more contagious, strain of the coronavirus, Boris Johnson put England into a third national lockdown. It means that all of the UK is now under tight restrictions similar to those imposed in the spring. The Prime Minister said he had “no choice” but to act, pointing out that the number of people in hospital in England with Covid had shot up by nearly a third in the past week to almost 27,000 – 40% more than at the peak of the first wave in the spring. It’s thought that more than a million people in England currently have the virus. On Tuesday, the number of new daily confirmed cases of Covid in the UK topped 60,000 for the first time. In a joint statement, the UK’s four chief medical officers warned that the NHS was at risk of being overwhelmed over the next three weeks.

Parts of it are already buckling, said Shaun Lintern in The Independent. In the southeast of England, some hospitals are having to ration oxygen. Lincoln County Hospital declared a critical incident this week owing to the number of new patients needing to be admitted. In London, where one in 30 people are estimated to have the virus, the King’s College Hospital Trust cancelled all “Priority 2” cancer operations – those so urgent they’re meant to be carried out within 28 days. Elsewhere, ambulance crews have been “facing six-hour delays to hand over patients”. The system is coming apart at the seams, agreed Martin Fletcher in the New Statesman. Intensive care nurses usually only have to tend to one seriously ill patient each, but many are now having to juggle three or four. The UK’s Covid death toll has already “passed 75,000 – more than Britain’s civilian casualties in the Second World War – and could reach 100,000 by February”.

“No one can pretend that running a country during the deadliest pandemic in a century is easy,” said Michael Deacon in The Daily Telegraph. But Johnson has been consistently behind the curve throughout this crisis. Again and again, he has resisted following scientists’ advice until the last minute. His advisers warned him two weeks ago, in the run-up to Christmas, that the exponential spread of infections called for a new national lockdown and for schools to remain closed, said The Guardian. But only this week, a day after insisting that the school term would go ahead as normal in all but the very worst affected areas, did the PM order all schools to close for at least six weeks. In No. 10, there is “a persistent refusal to confront and act on the worst-case scenario before the worst has actually happened”.

The approach to schools has been particularly shambolic, said Sonia Sodha in The Observer. Only last month, the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, threatened to take legal action against schools in Islington and Greenwich, in London, when they suggested that they might take the precaution of breaking up for Christmas a few days early. Rather than working with teachers, he has consistently made their lives harder by springing policy changes on them with little notice. The Government hasn’t exactly “covered itself with glory” on this front, said Fiona Bulmer on CapX, but nor have the teaching unions, whose approach to meeting pupils’ educational needs during the pandemic has been “threaded through with a ‘can’t do’ attitude”. Children, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, have been badly let down.

The confirmation this week that GCSE and A-level exams will be cancelled in England (as elsewhere in the UK) for a second year in a row spells “further disruption for a generation whose formative years have been stolen by the pandemic”, said The Times. But it makes sense to replace the tests with a form of teacher assessment, given how much less time all pupils, but particularly those in the state sector, have had to prepare. The exams would otherwise have served as a “state-sponsored exercise in entrenching educational inequality”. To prevent even more damage to pupils’ prospects, the Government must now concentrate on ensuring that “when schools do reopen, they stay open”, said Rachel Sylvester in the same paper. The way to do that is not through mass testing, which is too unreliable, but through vaccination. Teachers should be prioritised for jabs along with health workers, and there’s a case for moving older pupils up the priority list too. People in their 60s might be happy to wait a few more weeks for a jab if it meant their grandchildren could get back into a classroom. “The response to the virus has always been a question of priorities. The debate has been seen as a balance between lives and livelihoods, but life chances matter too.”