Until Friday, restrictions on the British economy were lifted one by one. Barring a sudden and dramatic resurgence of Covid-19, there was little reason to assume it would not continue – other than to the point of returning to full normality by Christmas, as the Prime Minister suggested two weeks ago, then next year. Now, there is a very different message: For the indefinite future, the government will not hesitate to shut things down at the slightest sign of an increase in Covid-19 cases.
And a slight sign of increasing cases is all there is. The previous week, the ONS reported 45 positive tests in a sample of 114,674 people. Last week, that figure rose to 59 out of a sample of 116,026. Businesses were thrown to the wall for the sake of 14 more people who tested positive for the virus. In addition, any sign of recovery is limited to recorded cases. There has been no increase in the number of people hospitalized for the virus: on the contrary, over the past two weeks the number of people occupying intensive care beds has halved, from 142 to 71.
If there is a resurgence, it is concentrated in a few local areas such as Blackburn, which recorded 91 new cases per 100,000 residents last week. Still, the setback from reopening theaters, casinos and the like applies nationwide, even in places where there are virtually no infections. Even ‘local lockdowns’ aren’t particularly local – Wigan (8 cases per 100,000 last week) and Rossendale (6 cases per 100,000) have a lower incidence of the disease than Kent or Hammersmith and Fulham, but they have been included in a ban on meeting their friends and family.
No business can operate with confidence in the atmosphere of uncertainty created by reflexes and arbitrary government policies. Vacation companies that had gone to great lengths to meet the demands placed on them have had the mat taken off by the decision, with three hours’ notice, to force vacationers returning from Spain into quarantine. No tourism business operating in a destination can be sure that the same will not happen to them. Think of the theaters gearing up for the lucrative panto season, which subsidizes much of what else they do. How can they commit to repeating the casts knowing they could be resealed at any time?
The businesses that were ordered to stay closed this weekend may not be the most essential services – I guess we can get by without having our eyebrows on. But they employ large numbers of people, most of whose livelihoods will now be lost. The government has made it known that it is ready to react suddenly and furiously to small changes in Covid-19 infection rates. He does not appear to be worried about the increasingly dramatic unemployment statistics as a result.