Restrictions come into force today — but the basis for the policy is dubious
Ostensibly, the Government’s new 3 tier local lockdown strategy was introduced to prevent case rises, but there seems to be little evidence that it will succeed. Indeed, it might even be counter-productive as closing pubs in tier 3 areas like Liverpool shifts socialising and drinking away from Covid-secure venues to less controlled settings like homes.
Moreover, cases in these cities do not appear to be increasing exponentially, something that was suggested in the various Government briefings to MPs and the public.
There is no doubt that Covid cases have increased rapidly in many northern cities, notably Liverpool, Newcastle and Leeds, over the past couple of months. While there has been a rise in hospitalisations and deaths particularly in the North West and North East, it is nothing like the levels or the rates of increase that we saw back in March and April.
More recently the picture has been muddied by significant outbreaks among university students. These spikes have caused an explosion in positive tests in certain cities where rates were already increasing, but also in other cities like Sheffield and Nottingham where rates had previously been fairly low.
Manchester University, for example, has reported over 1,500 cases among students. Nottingham University has reported a similar number, helping to catapult the city to the top of the Covid league table.
No one wishes illness on anyone, but statistically, the student population is one in which the chances of serious symptoms developing is relatively low. Indeed, of the 770 cases at Northumbria University, 90% were reported to be asymptomatic.
One concern about the explosion of student cases is that they will lead to infections in the broader community, rates in these cities will carry on increasing exponentially. This may lie behind the Government’s thinking in imposing further restrictions in these areas.
Another assumption underlying the lockdowns is that, without additional restrictions, rates of new cases will increase continually, as prophesied in the notorious Vallance-Whitty *not a prediction* graph.
If that is the case, it would suggest that the Government and its advisors believe that the existing restrictions such as the rule of 6 and the 10pm curfew are ineffective. In which case, why not get rid of them straight away?
Ironically, on the day that the additional measures come into place this, the data seems to be showing that it is not inevitable that cases will continually increase.
If we look at the 7-day average (to take account of day-of-the-week testing effects) of new positive tests by specimen date in most of the big university cities, the rates of increase has been coming down and in some, new positive tests are already decreasing.
Data is usually reliable by specimen date after five days of reporting. As of yesterday’s reports, we can see changes up until the 8th October. But newer data can at least give us some indication of the direction of travel.
Take Manchester first. Positive tests have actually been decreasing since the 4th October, well before the new restrictions were even announced.
Positive tests are also coming down already in Sheffield, Newcastle and Leeds. Nottingham looks like joining them from around the 9th October, while the increase in rates seems to at least to be levelling off in Liverpool.
What will happen over the next few days remains unclear. The path of the virus can change rapidly and without warning. It may well be that cases will start to rise again in some or all of these cities. But given the devastation that the new restrictions will cause both economically and socially, it is hard to understand why the Government did not delay their introduction for at least a few days to see if the decline in positive tests became a firmer trend. Even more incomprehensible is the suggestion that Manchester and other parts of the North West might be moved almost immediately to Tier 3 before we even get a chance to see the impact of Tier 2.
David Paton is Professor of Industrial Economics at Nottingham University Business School. He Tweets as @CricketWyvern