Across France and Spain and now the UK, messages from governments and scientists have an ominous familiarity. Six months after the pandemic forced economies into suspended animation, spiralling case numbers risk the same lockdowns all over again.
Britain, which was late going into its first lockdown, suffered more than most and emerged later as a result and is a few weeks behind the curve. But the overall picture is similar. In a sombre briefing on Monday, England’s top government scientists warned that, without urgent action, the country would experience 50,000 cases a day by mid-October and 200 daily deaths by November.
The challenge is to curb rising infections while doing everything possible to avoid new nationwide shutdowns. The first lockdowns caused the biggest plunges in output for decades; a repeat could sound a death knell for some sectors and leave far deeper economic scars. That means continuing to try to live with the virus. Boris Johnson’s Conservative government has got much wrong in its pandemic handling, but is right in its appraisal of the onerous trade-offs involved. Containing transmission while maintaining full social interaction and a functioning economy has proved unworkable.
If something has to give, then inevitably — however painful in human terms — that has to be social mixing. Teenage education must be protected; teenage parties can, for a time, be sacrificed. UK nations have tightened rules on social gatherings. If that proves insufficient, governments will need to look again at the hospitality sector.
While Downing Street and the Treasury have fought against closing pubs and restaurants, a sensible first step is earlier closing times, or curfews. Closure at, say, 10pm can allow businesses to function while avoiding the breakdowns in social distancing often witnessed in the late-evening haze. A two-week “circuit breaker” lockdown, coinciding with school half-terms, is also a potentially effective safeguard.
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If families are to accept limits on everything from grandparents seeing grandchildren to how many can sit down for Christmas dinner, however, they are justified in expecting the government to fulfil its responsibilities. Chief among these in Britain is to fix both halves of the still malfunctioning test and trace system. Downing Street can boast the UK is testing more than France and Germany. But capacity shortages complicate everything from spotting local outbreaks quickly to keeping classrooms and hospital wards functioning. An effective testing infrastructure would make the trade-offs demanded by the virus less painful.
A second responsibility is to provide clear rules and communication. Guidance, including on safety requirements for pubs and restaurants, is too often imprecisely drafted and poorly conveyed. The Westminster government should reintroduce daily briefings — not to put ministers on the spot, but to underline the seriousness of the situation and hammer home key messages.
Far better communication and co-ordination is needed, too, between national and local authorities — and between London and the other UK nations. It is absurd, in a global pandemic, for Wales’s first minister to have spoken only once since May to the UK premier. Scottish leader Nicola Sturgeon has benefited politically from distancing herself from Mr Johnson, but national leaderships should put aside petty politicking in a time of crisis.
Different rules on how many people, say, can meet in a house on either side of an invisible border erode clarity and credibility. “We’re all in it together” is a message that should be true on many different levels.
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