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Johnson's 'three tiers' won't fix his government's coronavirus problems

The new tiered restrictions risk amounting to little more than a rebranding exercise

Without local backing and an effective test and trace regime, the new tiered restrictions risk amounting to little more than a rebranding exercise, says Catherine Haddon

Another prime ministerial statement and another attempt to regain a grip on the coronavirus crisis. Boris Johnson has set out a new way to grade restrictions across the country, and has been attempting to show a newfound determination to work with local politicians. But for all the new announcements, the government is unlikely to succeed if it does not address the problems that led them to this latest approach.

Rebranding cannot make up for a confused strategy

The new strategy is one of several since the original lockdown in March. In April the government announced five ‘tests’ for easing measures from the national lockdown. In May it had ‘three phases’ for how to ease those measures, with each containing different ‘steps’. Alongside these phases and steps were five ‘alert levels’ to communicate the levels of Covid-19 transmission and the risk. Each step, level and test soon fell by the wayside, with the picture becoming even more complicated in July as Leicester went into the first ‘local lockdown’ and the easing of restrictions began to reverse.

Since the summer the government’s strategy has seemed to be based on the idea, set out in its May recovery ‘roadmap’, to target local hotspots and try to limit the amount of England-wide restrictions it put in place. But this ‘whackamole’ strategy has led to an ever more confused set of England-wide restrictions – pubs shut in one town, household mixing banned in another. Everything will now be bundled into the three ‘tiers’ of lockdown. While this provides a slightly clearer picture in the short term, the government needs to improve how it communicates what the tiers mean, where they are in place, and why. A postcode checker, allowing people to find what tier they are living in, is yet to launch on the government website, and the NHS Covid app has already been hit by a notification glitch. Ultimately, however, the naming and grouping of restriction grades hasn’t fundamentally altered the government’s approach.

The tier system will be a temporary fix without an effective test, track and trace regime

The survival of these tiers will only last longer than the previous ‘tests’, ‘phases’, ‘steps’ and ‘alert levels’ if they actually slow the spread of the virus. Warnings from the government’s scientific advisors suggest they have low confidence that they will. Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, stood alongside the prime minister and warned that tier three is unlikely to be enough to tackle rising cases in the worst affected areas, while a new tranche of releases from the government’s scientific advisory group for emergencies (SAGE) revealed that they called for much greater restrictions back in September.

Johnson’s gambit is, as he acknowledged yesterday, a tricky balancing act – he called it a "balanced approach". But trying to avoid the worse economic pain of a national lockdown only works if the measures in place prove less harmful than the alternative. Many MPs reminded the prime minister that temporary restrictions in some areas have been in place for months, casuing economic and social harm but offering little sign that they are reducing cases. As the government’s recovery strategy set out in May, the management of local lockdowns only works as a targeted approach if the government has the means to monitor what is happening on the ground.

With ongoing problems in test and trace, the prime minister’s promise that no areas will be "shut down indefinitely" will not instil great confidence, while raising the ‘very high’ tier ever higher may well see the public lose confidence in these latest measures.  

Long-haul local lockdowns will only work with local government backing

Alongside a viable test and trace scheme, the government also relies on local management of hotspots. But the government only now seems to recognise the logistical and political reasons for working closely with those who are closer to the communities they serve. The prime minster was at pains to point out how important it was to understand local conditions and communities, and there was a push for MPs to be more included in those conversations – albeit with an apparent failure to remember which MPs it needed to call, with Wigan MP Lisa Nandy one of several left out of the loop. However, it was Whitty who seemed most keen to stress the importance of local politicians in selling these restrictions to an exhausted and demoralised populace.

But there are few signs the government's approach has changed significantly. Steve Rotheram was praised throughout the day by the prime minister, but the Liverpool mayor was quick to undercut Johnson’s account of how closely they worked together. Andy Street, the Conservative mayor for the West Midlands, also reacted with disappointment that his efforts to avoid tier two have failed. The government has said that it will impose restrictions if necessary, but the buy-in of local leaders is a key part of having the new tier system accepted by the communities it will impact upon.  

After months of changing strategies, and ever worsening numbers, the government may hope that its tiers-based approach slows the increased spread of the virus. However, as the government has learnt more than once in its attempts to control the coronavirus, a rebrand requires more than a launch event if it is to be a success.

Johnson government
Public figures
Boris Johnson
Institute for Government

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