We didn’t know it before. Now that we do, it makes it more difficult to understand why so many theaters remain closed, empty offices and schools on a skeleton service. Local knowledge can be put into practice, as we have seen in Leicester: it allows ministers to act quickly. But they can also do this in places that are practically free of Covid, by abolishing mandatory restrictions and simply asking people to be careful.
While pubs and camping sites will reopen tomorrow, much remains in the freeze. There will be no theaters, no football, no swimming pools, no meetings of more than six independent people. We are still being asked to “avoid” public transport, which complicates the trip to work. Employees are told to stay home if they can. Suspension of office life may be suitable for managers of large houses, but it deprives younger workers of the opportunity to learn and develop. Every day continues, the damage increases.
Could lifting the block risk a second peak? This has not been the experience on the Continent so far. This should encourage the Prime Minister, but he still seems bewildered – as if he is unable to understand why, if he has put in place such a draconian and expensive blockade, he has so little to prove.
The mood in the locker is still deeply cautious. At least two of its members want to go even further to Leicester, closing the streets and preventing trains from stopping at its station. The past few months have been so traumatizing for conservatives that they plan to move at glacial speed – or just talk about something else. This week it was easier for the Prime Minister to talk about turning the A1 into a dual carriageway than to assess and repair the educational damage inflicted by the blockade.
It is easy to understand why the number 10 is discouraged. But it shouldn’t overlook the power of the test tool in its possession. We now know that Covid is a regional virus. Poleaxò Lombardy but not Naples, which this year has had fewer deaths than normal. It hit Stockholm but spared Malmö. Paris has been hit, but most of France has been as safe as Wiltshire. Even when the blockade ended and people started traveling to Europe again, the virus did not restart. So Italy, as a country, did not have to close. This is the experience that Britain can learn from.
Local tests indicate that London, the country’s most powerful economic engine, can be put into motion much faster. The new Covid test apparatus is able to provide a rapid alarm system capable of issuing an alarm in case of peak infections: in this case, restrictions can be added. Or, more likely, people can be informed of the local peak and react accordingly. It’s not about playing roulette with the lives of local people: lockdown does. It’s about finding a better balance that doesn’t cause unnecessary pain in parts of the country where the virus has almost disappeared.
The pubs and restaurants that open tomorrow will wonder if they can make ends meet with this new system – or how long the new rules will last. Others have already given up. Southampton’s Nuffield Theater said yesterday that it is closing forever. Locally, there is no pandemic. Of the quarter of a million people living in the city, only one tested positive for Covid last week.
The Prime Minister now has the power to accelerate recovery. It can continue tomorrow with a partial reopening, while being more cautious in places like Leicester and facing exacerbations when they arise. But local blockades should work both ways: it can also eliminate restrictions in places where it is safe to do so. With a lot of drama and expense, he created a huge test tool that offers a faster route from the block. He just needs the courage to use it.