When the tier system was reintroduced earlier this month, we were encouraged to believe it would be a measured response, not a substitute lockdown. We were told that those places suffering under the highest levels of restrictions would be allowed to move down the tiers in the weeks that followed. Instead, the system has operated like a ratchet. The majority of the country now labours under the toughest rules. The decision on Monday evening to move London, along with much of Essex and Hertfordshire, into Tier 3 is particularly difficult to comprehend.
As an MP for a London constituency, I have seen the muddled logic behind this latest move close up. In the area that I represent, as in most of the capital, the recent wave of infections has been driven predominantly by secondary school children. Given the calamitous cost of shutting schools during the first lockdown, the Government has quite rightly made a priority out of keeping them open this time. So there was always a possibility that the infection would spread more quickly among younger people than among other groups.
Admittedly, the situation has not been helped by children from different schools congregating and messing around once the school day is over. Consequently, the other group in which the virus is surging is their parents – although thankfully not their grandparents. But how exactly does that justify shutting down large parts of the economy that are entirely unconnected, notably a hospitality sector that was already on its knees?
Pressure on the NHS is no explanation. While NHS England regularly likes to warn that the health service is about to be overwhelmed, the truth is that hospital admissions remain under control in the capital, with occupancy in London at about the same level, or possibly lower, than this time last year.
In fact, the latest figures show that, in the capital, the number of intensive care beds occupied by Covid patients is around 20 per cent of the number that were occupied during the Easter weekend during the first lockdown. Moreover, as health experts can confirm, there is a much greater understanding of how to treat Covid patients now, and with the arrival of better drugs, treatments are much better than they were.
The failed predictions that took us into lockdown seem to be reappearing, with little regard for the economic consquences. The hospitality sector has not been the source of the infection – far from it. It has played by the rules, enforcing social distancing and spending large amounts of money to Covid-proof their premises. There is no logic to punishing pubs and restaurants when the virus is spreading among children.
The behavioural consequences also appear to be being completely overlooked. Even in Tier 2, a significant number of young people in their 20s and 30s were already ignoring the rules and meeting up at home. The crackdown on pubs and restaurants will, I expect, ensure that more people, unable to go to the pub, will buy their alcohol at the off licence and drink with their friends in an environment that has not been secured against the virus: their homes.
To add insult to injury, not only is Tier 3 a poor answer to the spread of Covid, its imposition also carries a devastating cost to business. This latest decision will be a body blow to London. The estimated hit to the economy is £3 billion, and in human terms it will mean many businesses simply will not open again. Even while writing this I have heard from the proprietor of a restaurant in my constituency telling me that, having been forced to close during the first national lockdown and then again in November, she was dependent on pre-Christmas bookings to boost her revenue and now wonders how she can pay her bills. She was in despair.
What we need here is a surgical strike, supported by significant amounts of testing to resolve the problem of the virus spreading rapidly within schools. Instead, we have a blunt instrument that will sadly produce a horrifying level of collateral damage.
First published in The Telegraph