The British government tightens covid-19 restrictions
THE CHURCHILLIAN rhetoric is back. “Never in our history has our collective destiny and our collective health depended so completely on our individual behaviour,” Boris Johnson, the prime minister, warns. So are new nationwide restrictions. From September 24th, bars and restaurants will have to close at 10pm. More people will be required to wear masks; working from home will be encouraged. All rules will be strictly enforced. Barring a vaccine or testing breakthrough, Mr Johnson said, these new restrictions will last for six months. Merry Christmas indeed.
Over the summer the government has tried to suppress covid-19 with local restrictions. It now believes a change of approach is necessary. Britain is counting more than 4,500 cases a day, up from just over 1,500 at the start of September, and case counts are rising across the country. Hospitalisations are also growing—most worryingly in the north. Though deaths are still very low, they too seem to be heading in the wrong direction. The government hopes to avoid the worst elements of the first wave of the virus, both by responding earlier to rising case counts and by not clamping down as hard.
The new measures have received enthusiastic public support. According to a poll by YouGov, 78% of people think the government was right to introduce them; a plurality believes it should go further still. Yet ministers are keen to wait to see the impact of earlier restrictions—including the decision on September 14th to ban social gatherings involving more than six people—before adding extra ones. All told, things are less urgent than in the spring. Cases are rising more slowly, treatment has improved and, though problems remain, the test-and-trace system at least exists.
Restrictions on commerce are thus less severe. During the first lockdown, non-essential retail, bars and restaurants were closed. Businesses nevertheless greeted the new measures with dismay. A return to working from home will hit transport and hospitality especially hard. Retailers fear that footfall will suffer. A ban on socialising involving multiple households, which both Northern Ireland and Scotland have plumped for, will be particularly damaging to pubs and restaurants.
The government is also keen to minimise the cost of this wave to the exchequer. Since the early days of the pandemic, the two core elements of the government’s economic response have been the Jobs Retention Scheme, under which it pays 80% of the wages of furloughed employees, and a range of cheap loans to tide firms over. Both are due to wind down in the next few weeks, with the main loans facility closing to new applicants on September 30th and the furlough programme ending in October. At the start of September 3m employees were estimated still to be on the scheme. Whitbread, which runs hotels and pubs, and has made heavy use of the furlough scheme, announced on September 22nd that it would be making up to 6,000 redundancies in the coming weeks.
An announcement extending the application period for the various lending packages had been expected on September 23rd, but those involved in the talks say it has been pushed back, as the government wants to announce extra support for jobs at the same time. As The Economist went to press, the Treasury looked set to announce a German-style short-time working scheme, under which the government would top up the incomes of employees who had their hours cut. Whereas the furlough scheme cost the Treasury almost £40bn between April and mid-September, the bill for such a programme would run to just hundreds of millions of pounds a month.
Plans for an autumn budget have been scrapped. Restrictions on behaviour, and with them the economy’s needs, change so swiftly these days that long-term planning looks like something from another age.■
This article appeared in the Britain section of the print edition under the headline "Winter has come"
Author: | Post link: https://www.economist.com/britain/2020/09/26/the-british-government-tightens-covid-19-restrictions
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