There will be intense structural change, industries will be decimated and city centres will never look the same again. At least construction sites, factories and warehouses will be kept open this time, unlike when the original lockdown was imposed. The Government cannot afford another collapse in GDP. But the economy will not recover fully as quickly as the V-shaped optimists were hoping, and neither will the public finances – especially if the pressure for more subsidies becomes irresistible.
So much for what passes for “good” news. The UK’s original lockdown was among the softest in Europe: the messaging was harsher than the legal reality. This won’t be true this time. We are switching from restrictions based on mass consent to social distancing enforced by the fear of hefty fines.
Astonishingly given our liberal traditions, the six-person rule will be enforced by the police. Ministers have rejected the traditional British voluntarist approach, and, emboldened or desperate, are going down the French-Italian-Spanish Continental, authoritarian route. In this respect, Lockdown II will be far worse than the first.
Enforcement was broadly spontaneous between March and May: compliance was higher than expected, and more extreme in many cases than the law demanded. There was a quasi-religious fervour to aspects of it, including the veneration of the NHS. None of this is likely this time: much of the nation is tired of restrictions, many don’t accept that there is a second wave, and certain groups – including the young – are rebelling. Imploring people to save the NHS won’t be enough.
The cultural and social consequences of this authoritarian turn will be grave: previously law-abiding citizens will look at the police in a very different light. There will be widespread curtain-twitching, neighbour pitted against neighbour, all overseen by a joyless army of Covid “marshals” to monitor compliance. The first lockdown’s community spirit will disappear, replaced instead by a quasi-Napoleonic assumption that whatever isn’t explicitly allowed must be prohibited. We will become more Latin in the way we consider law and order and the state. Paradoxically, Boris Johnson, a quintessentially liberal Tory, will end up making our country permanently more illiberal, less respectful of freedom and more prone to being bossed around.
At the same time, the Left-wing professional classes will use their anger at Brexit and the prospect of a no deal as an outlet for discontent with the Covid fiasco. They were committed to the first lockdown; they won’t be this time, and will focus instead on criticising Johnson’s government. National unity is long since over.
This new regime will be especially devastating for families and friendships. They will bear the brunt of the social distancing, and our society will end up more atomised. Traditions will be eroded, and millions of irreplaceable occasions will never now happen. Grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, birthdays, big gatherings: the rich tapestry of family life will stand horribly impoverished. As Zoom fatigue sets in, the six-person rule will be a psychological calamity. We are in for a grim, painful winter.