Coronavirus: could Britain afford a second lockdown to avoid a second wave?

Cases are ticking up again in the UK - but few would welcome reintroduction of tough nationwide restrictions

The M8 motorway in Glasgow during the first coronavirus lockdown
Cases are ticking up again in the UK - but few would welcome reintroduction of tough nationwide restrictions
(Image credit: JeffJMitchell)

Boris Johnson has likened it to a “nuclear deterrent” while businesses have warned that the resulting cost could be unendurable - but few in government are willing to rule out another national lockdown.

Although Britain’s Covid-19 infection rate is currently low, new cases have been on the rise in recent weeks. The average number of positive tests per day, which dipped to 546 in the week ending 5 July, now stands at 726 - triggering alarm at Downing Street.

Are we facing a second wave?

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Many European countries are reporting larger spikes. Spain, for example, which has a 25% smaller population than the UK, confirmed more than 2,000 new coronavirus cases yesterday.

“We can see, sadly, a second wave of coronavirus that’s started to roll across Europe,” Health Secretary Matt Hancock told BBC Breakfast. “We want to do everything we can to protect people here and to prevent that wave from reaching our shore.”

Not everyone is so sure that the new outbreaks amount to a second wave, however, with some experts suggesting the hikes are simply more of the first.

“More usefully,” says The Times’ science editor Tom Whipple, “you could view it as neither.

“We are, instead, at the beginning of a long and depressing autumn and winter of uncountable ripple after ripple, each of them to be flattened at wearying and tedious expense.”

How much did the first lockdown cost?

The total cost of the Covid-19 outbreak to the UK is “likely to be more than £300bn”, says the BBC. “That's an absolutely enormous sum.”

But not all of that cost can be blamed on lockdown, says Richard Holden, an economics professor at the University of New South Wales.

Quite apart from the increased cost of healthcare, “having a highly contagious virus with a significant fatality rate running through the community is bad for the economy”, Holden writes in an article on The Conversation. “Lockdowns add to that, but come with an important benefit - getting the virus under control.”

Even so, lockdowns carry health and social costs too.

“The number of suicides is up. Domestic violence has increased. Mental health is suffering,” says The Guardian’s economics editor Larry Elliott. “The jobless total is heading for three million this summer despite the fact that the government is currently paying a third of the workforce.”

A recent study compiled by the Office for National Statistics, the Home Office and the Department for Health and Social Care suggested that “more than 200,000 people could die because of delays in healthcare and other economic and social effects all caused by lockdown”, reports the Daily Mail.

That kind of damage is not to be taken lightly, says Elliott. “The likelihood that Covid-19 will resurface a second and perhaps a third or fourth time makes the case for a measured approach to future lockdowns even stronger,” he argues.

Would the UK lock down again?

The prime minister has spoken of introducing another national lockdown as a measure of last resort.

“I can’t abandon that tool any more than I would abandon a nuclear deterrent,” he told The Sunday Telegraph earlier this month. “But it is like a nuclear deterrent, I certainly don’t want to use it. And nor do I think we will be in that position again.”

Johnson said that local control measures, including lockdowns where necessary, and “enhanced shielding for particular groups”, could reduce the spread of the virus without the need for nationwide restrictions.

A similar approach has been adopted elsewhere in Europe: local curfews and quarantines have been implemented in Spain and Germany.

For now, the UK’s main focus is on trying to prevent returning holidaymakers from bringing the disease back home with them.

“Scientists’ main concern is about imported infections rather than the emerging signs of a surge in this country,” The Times reports. “It is hoped that contact tracing and local restrictions can keep hotspots under control.”

Could we afford a second lockdown?

“Some economists argue that all the costs of the crisis could be easily covered by borrowing alone,” says the BBC, “but many disagree.”

Interest rates are unusually low at the moment, especially for governments - but the cost of borrowing would rise if lenders began to doubt the UK’s ability to pay back the debt.

Another lockdown, another round of job cuts and another blow to the economy might dent their confidence.

Would people even comply?

A report published today by the British Future think-tank suggests that the “sense of togetherness” that developed in the early days of the crisis “is starting to fray”.

The authors identify the row about Dominic Cummings’ apparent breach of lockdown rules as the turning point.

Another round of restrictions might be less widely observed, particularly by young people, according to The Guardian’s Elliott.

“Many will simply not comply, deciding instead that Covid-19 is a risk they are prepared to accept,” he says.

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Holden Frith is The Week’s digital director. He also makes regular appearances on “The Week Unwrapped”, speaking about subjects as diverse as vaccine development and bionic bomb-sniffing locusts. He joined The Week in 2013, spending five years editing the magazine’s website. Before that, he was deputy digital editor at The Sunday Times. He has also been’s technology editor and the launch editor of Wired magazine’s UK website. Holden has worked in journalism for nearly two decades, having started his professional career while completing an English literature degree at Cambridge University. He followed that with a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University in Chicago. A keen photographer, he also writes travel features whenever he gets the chance.