Police officers scuffle with revellers in the street after pub closing time in Leeds, northern England on November 4, 2020, on the eve of a second novel coronavirus COVID-19 lockdown in an effort to combat soaring infections. (Photo by OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Lockdown II: Will Britons comply?

National rules are impractical without public trust, enforcement, and manners

Given all the talk about political opposition to a second national lockdown, I am surprised nobody is asking whether the public would comply.

The government is urging solidarity and criminalizing non-compliance, but that didn’t work during Lockdown I.

British policing is weak in general, and unfair in particular

Police in England and Wales investigated only 4,000 breaches of quarantine rules (fewer than the number of people who attended Black Lives Matter protests). Of these 4,000 investigations, less than 1 per cent resulted in fines. Nine-tenths of police forces never penalized anybody for disobeying the rules on face masks inside public transport (since 15 June) and shops (since 24 July). From 30 June to 8 September, British Transport Police stopped 50,700 people for not wearing a mask on public transport but issued only 51 penalty notices (0.1 per cent).

While the government pretends that lockdowns work, it ignores the fact that Black Lives Matter ended lockdown in the last week of May, before the government’s nominally ended it a month later.

Authoritarianism relies on law enforcement, but British policing is weak in general, and unfair in particular. At the start of Lockdown I, the same police forces that wouldn’t show up to investigate a break-in nevertheless jumped to harass people outdoors. They used drones to find ramblers in national parks. South Yorkshire Police fined a family for using its front garden.

Such unfairness and lack of consequences just encourage more people to disobey

Police retreated into compliance with non-compliance, except when convenient to fashionable prejudices. This was most obvious in late May, when no police force enforced lockdown against the Black Lives Matter movement. By contrast, in September (i.e., after lockdown), police cracked down on anti-migrant protests in Dover and anti-lockdown protests in London. In October, police allowed Muslim extremists to lay their prayer mats on public highways to protest against French cartoons (even on the day after three French citizens were beheaded in Nice).

Such unfairness and lack of consequences just encourage more people to disobey. The government admitted mass non-compliance every time it went public with a warning that stronger measures would be necessary.

Individual non-compliance was reported nationally only when members of the government were involved, such as Dominic Cummings in May. He claimed a family emergency. Local police ruled he possibly committed a crime but declined to investigate further. The opposition press had no doubts.

Voluntary compliance became more important (in terms of risk management) after national lockdown ended in July, with some restrictions remaining. However, pent up Britons rushed to vacation sites, particularly on the coast, given hot weather. The result was crowding, urinating, defecating, and mass brawls at beachespublic parks, and street parties, as well as unprecedented littering, fly-tipping, illegal camping, and wildfires in the countryside.

Before the August bank holiday weekend, the Home Secretary (Pritt Patel) appealed through The Telegraph for Britons to “remain alert and enjoy summer safely.” Although “the vast majority” had behaved with “sacrifice and sense of duty … there is still a small minority of inconsiderate individuals who show a blatant disregard for the safety of others.” On the same weekend, leaks revealed that the Department of Education had warned schools to expect rowdier behaviour, given six months off school.

Surveys prove mass non-compliance. In August, only 36 per cent of people in Britain were wearing face masks in public, compared to 65 per cent in Germany and 86 per cent in Spain. Agony aunts were receiving letters about how to handle people who won’t wear masks.

The problem was partly of the government’s making, due to its shifting policies and communications, replete with contradictions and loopholes. For instance, it urges humans to social distance, but not to leash their dogs (which are vectors for Covid-19).

The government must blame itself for less public trust this time around

Non-compliance betrays also a longer-term decline in British cohesion and manners – and common sense, for that matter. Social distancing is the easiest way to avoid infection, while maintaining otherwise normal economic and social life, but compliance was hit and miss. Some shopworkers, emboldened perhaps by their new status as “essential workers,” would bump into whomever they liked while berating customers for erring from the stickers on the floor. Some did not wear face masks, while refusing to permit customers without face masks. One of my fellow trans-Atlanticists arrived in Britain in mid-October astonished to see no facemasks at Heathrow, no practical expectations for him to quarantine, no tests for even a raised body temperature, and no facemasks in pubs and restaurants, which were packed with revellers, “bellowing into each other’s ears over the background music.”

Days before the vote on Lockdown II, the Home Secretary reportedly drew up stronger rules (such as no protests with more than two people) and told police to enforce the rules more strongly this time. However, the same report contained push back from police leaders. And subsequent reports suggest that the Home Office and police agreed that penalties would be used as a last resort. Lockdown II is replete with excuses for non-compliance that are practically impossible to enforce. For instance, you can travel to buy “essential items.” Food is essential. Let a police officer try to argue with that.

The government must blame itself for less public trust this time around (and thus less compliance). Lockdown I was announced on 23 March, for a period of four weeks, but lasted for four months. On 31 October, Johnson prospected Lockdown II for four weeks (to 2 December). However, within hours, Parliamentarians were telling each other and journalists that it would last longer. Ministers gave one journalist the impression that it will last until April. Backbencher David Davis prospects May.

The government claims that this time will be different, but it has no basis for that claim: it still doesn’t have reliable testing, tracing, or quarantining.

While some countries got testing, tracing, and quarantining working in March, Britain has failed several times. The unreliability of the current scheme is evident from anecdotes collected by Lockdown Sceptics, of symptomatic patients testing negative, while others who refused to wait hours for their appointment were later contacted with positive results.

Britain has failed at the quarantining too. The government still calls for voluntary self-isolation, but only 11 per cent of Britons contacted by NHS test-and-trace complied with orders to self-quarantine. Even given compliance, the self-quarantined continue to expose fellow residents of their homes.

Meanwhile, the NHS continues to protect itself by cancelling non-urgent care and discharging Covid-19 patients into self-quarantine (rather than quarantine wards, where quarantining can be monitored). The government is still projecting that the NHS won’t cope with Covid-19 patients alone, even though Covid has been around for a year now.

This government is not promising a lockdown with lessons learned. Johnson begs our compliance because otherwise twice as many people could die in the second wave as the first. But official estimates were wildly exaggerated before Lockdown I. The estimates and modelling remain opaque, as does the Scientific Advisory Group (SAGE). Signatories to the Great Barrington Declaration warn that Lockdown II will kill more people than it saves from Covid.

Lockdown II will collapse this year due to non-compliance

Corporations and thence their employees have economic incentives to comply, but most individuals do not. The entrepreneurs who are most exposed face a collective action problem: the small shop keepers, café owners, taxi drivers, fitness providers, and tourist attraction owners. Corporations can be more relaxed, because they are disproportionate recipients of emergency aid. National furlough schemes support permanent workers in the corporations, not the temporary and part-time workers in the small businesses. The government has again promised not to forget small businesses, but that’s a somewhat idle promise. (Even if the government is sincere, its own delays, caveats, and friction will defeat businesses with the least capacity.)

Lockdown II could be defeated politically. In September, Conservative rebels caused the government to abandon plans to impose emergency measures without Parliamentary approval. The number of rebels was higher for Lockdown II. The chairman (Graham Brady) of the Conservative backbench group (1922 Committee) denounced Lockdown II as an attack on “freedom, liberty, human rights.” Most Conservative councils were already against it, despite being impressed with emergency funding and communications from the ministry for local government. ConservativeHome warned of the disproportionate impact on the poor and Northern England. The Daily Telegraph declared against lockdown on the grounds of efficacy. The Brexit Party plans used opposition to lockdown as proximate cause for its long-delayed relaunch as the Reform UK Party.

Nevertheless, the legislation necessary for Lockdown II was predictably passed, if only because Her Majesty’s Opposition has always supported more authoritarian measures.

I expect the government to extend Lockdown II in December but achieve it only nominally. Lockdown II will collapse this year due to non-compliance, although I don’t expect the government to admit this, or collect any data on non-compliance.

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