In Depth

Is a ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown looming for London as Covid-19 cases spike?

Ministers mulling curb on indoor meetings as capital placed on coronavirus watchlist

London may follow much of northern Britain into a “total social lockdown” as ministers consider plans aimed at stemming spiralling Covid-19 outbreaks, according to reports.

The capital had been expected to fall victim to a second wave earlier, but has so far avoided lockdown measures even though 20 of the city’s boroughs have higher infection rates than areas of England already under restrictions. 

However, plans for a social lockdown in London are understood to have been presented to the cabinet’s Covid-19 Strategy Committee, chaired by Boris Johnson, with a government source telling The Times that London’s fate is “in the balance”.

Capital lossees

London Mayor Sadiq Khan last week put forward a 15-point plan for curbing the sudden rise in Covid infections in the capital, but the prime minister stopped short of banning the city’s households from mixing.

If the latest reports are correct, however, what is being proposed “sounds a lot like the ‘circuit breaker’ Johnson rejected last week”, says Politico London Playbook’s Alex Wickham.

The Times reports that under the emergency plan, “all pubs, restaurants and bars would be ordered to shut for two weeks initially”.

“Households would also be banned indefinitely from meeting each other in any indoor location,” the paper adds. 

Meanwhile, schools, shops, factories and offices with employees who cannot work from home would remain open.

Khan has repeatedly suggested that the government’s response to the fresh spike in coronavirus cases has not gone far enough. The mayor has urged Downing Street to “learn from the mistakes of the first wave” and expressed concern that the way the virus is spreading in London “is different to how it’s spread in other parts of the country”.

Covid committee

The Times says the plan for a “circuit breaker” lockdown was among options presented to the Covid-19 Strategy Committee last week, when the decision was made to impose a 10pm curfew on hospitality venues

But Johnson and five other ministers reportedly “held them back” from imposing a wider lockdown, fearing “a backlash from Tory MPs and sections of the public” 

A senior government source told the paper that “the nation and the party wasn’t ready for us to go any further last week”, adding that “there wasn’t a wide enough understanding of how substantial the second wave could be”.

Referring to the fresh outbreaks across mainland Europe, the source continued: “Unlike the first lockdown, nobody has seen pictures of body bags in Spain or France on the TV yet, which had a very powerful effect. You have to take people with you.” 

Government insiders say that Johnson will not make a decision on whether to lock down London “until more data comes in this week, and that the problems with testing are holding things up”, according to Politico’s Wickham. 

With tests running short across the capital, one source reportedly said that “if hardly anyone is getting a test then we can’t know who has it. But ICU admissions, 111 calls, hospital admissions and other measures are definitely going up.”

As HuffPost notes, “millions of people across the country are already living under local lockdown”, after the UK last Thursday reported a total of 6,634 new cases – the largest daily tally since the beginning of the pandemic.

So is London heading for lockdown?

In a statement last week, Khan said “that many Londoners, like me, will be deeply frustrated at the likelihood of imminent new restrictions”.

But “taking firm action now to prevent a deeper and longer lockdown in the future is without a doubt the best thing to both save lives, and protect jobs and our economic recovery”, he added.

The power to lock down the capital does not lie with City Hall, however, but rather with No. 10. 

The government is concerned about the economic damage that would result from such a shutdown, although ministers this morning refused to rule out stronger measures in the capital. 

Care Minister Helen Whately told BBC Breakfast that the government does not “want to bring in more restrictions”, but hedged her bets by adding that “we have to break these chains of transmission. That’s the way we get the rates back down again.” 

Government sources told The Times that the next areas to be subject to local lockdowns will probably be “Merseyside and the northeast, where case numbers continue to rise the fastest”. 

As for whether London will follow suit, this week’s infection data will shed more light on the scale of the health crisis in the capital. 

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