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Confusion over local coronavirus lockdowns shows a government failing to learn from mistakes

The government needs to get slicker at imposing local lockdowns

A number of Boris Johnson’s “whack-a-mole” local lockdowns are now in place, but Alex Thomas says the government needs to get slicker at imposing them

Local lockdowns have now been introduced in Leicester, Luton, parts of the north of England, and in Aberdeen, with the last put in place by the Scottish government rather than the UK administration. This is the prime minister’s whack-a-mole strategy in action.

With these local restrictions set to be a feature of life until Covid-19 treatments or a vaccine make them unnecessary, or if a second national lockdown is required, governments across the UK need to be able to act coherently as well as quickly when they are introduced. The experience so far has been mixed, and it is not clear that ministers have learned from the mistakes they made when imposing – and lifting – the nationwide lockdown, and how they communicated their thinking to the public. They need to sharpen up their messaging with better co-ordination and make local information more accessible online. There’s also an opportunity over the summer to start to tidy up the legislative underpinning for these measures.

One cheer for giving more powers and data to local authorities

Deciding on a local or regional lockdown is not as straightforward as applying an automatic formula or blanket response. Different circumstances require different restrictions. For example, pubs and restaurants were closed in Aberdeen, but remain open in the north of England, and Leicester’s initial lockdown was more severe than for other parts of England. This rightly reflects the circumstances of different cases. In Aberdeen the virus was spread by social contact, in Leicester seemingly by household transmission. It is also a consequence of devolution, with the Scottish government telling people in Aberdeen not to travel on holiday, and the UK (in this case English) administration putting no such restriction in place.

Specific highly localised interventions, informed by detailed daily information updates, are the best way to head off infection spikes before full local lockdowns are needed, so it is welcome that the government responded to the inadequacy of existing local authority powers. From 18 July, councils have been permitted to restrict access, close individual and public outdoor premises and prohibit some events from taking place, and central government has also worked to ensure that local public health directors have as much data as possible to allow them to act where and when it is needed.

Involving Andy Burnham, the mayor of Manchester, in the regional lockdown decision showed a new appreciation for the importance of local leaders publicly supporting national government action. The recent decision to shift the test, track and trace system to make more use of local authorities is also a welcome if belated decentralisation move.

Communications over local lockdowns have been muddled

While the thinking behind the local restrictions appears to have been improved, it is a different story on the guidance and communication from central government. Confused timing and complex messaging has left the public perplexed. The government should develop a simple postcode finder to help those whose lives are being affected by the ever-changing restrictions. If the chancellor’s “eat out to help out” scheme can harness that technology, then so should local lockdowns.

Announcements have also been chaotic. The news about the lockdown in the north of England was made public after 9pm on the evening before the midnight imposition of restrictions, with guidance not published until the following day. And a subsequent press conference saw the prime minister skate over the regional lockdown and focus instead on national measures.

It was reminiscent of Johnson’s confused and widely criticised televised address in May announcing his plans on a coronavirus exit strategy. The impression persists that the government does not have a joined up approach to its communications, and is more worried about getting gazumped on announcements by local or regional politicians than in making sure the detail has been sorted out.

Painfully for the UK government, Nicola Sturgeon showed them how it should be done with her handling of the Aberdeen lockdown. A press conference in the middle of the day, with the guidance published straight afterwards, in advance of restrictions coming into force at 5pm that afternoon, showed that the choreography does not need to be so difficult.

The statute book cannot be an afterthought when it comes to lockdowns

The legal and parliamentary underpinning for local lockdown also needs improvement. Updates to the legal framework have been unavailable until well after the event, and then layer complexity on complexity. The need for speed is understandable, but imposing such profound controls on citizens without scrutiny is a significant problem. Faster publication of statutory instruments would benefit parliamentary scrutiny and the media, who can then explain specific local measures to citizens.

On 24 July the government published its “draft options for regional or local interventions”. This menu of options for lockdowns, with associated legal instruments, was a worthy attempt to explain the existing legislative structure, but it is time to go further and clean up the underpinning law to simplify the rules and regulations.

When the specific detail of local and national government decisions reaches immediately into citizens’ lives, with limited appeal or redress, ministers owe the public clarity and precision. And when the decisions being taken are designed to restrict the spread of a highly contagious virus, those decisions – and the rationale behind them – need to be made clearly and coherently. The confusing picture across the country cannot continue for much longer.

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