12 October 2020

You’ll Never Work Out Again: Liverpool’s local lockdown lunacy

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Last Tuesday Boris Johnson told the Tory conference that the reason he had such a bad time with Covid was because he “had a very common underlying condition. My friends, I was too fat.” He implored us “to search for the hero inside yourself in the hope that that individual is considerably slimmer.”

Five days later we learn that, in order to tackle a virus which disproportionately impacts obese people, the Liverpool City region may be about to shut down gyms but keep McDonald’s open.

There are a number of reasons why this policy is just plain stupid.

On the narrow point of gyms, there is no evidence whatsoever that they are a source of Covid transmission. According to the industry body ukactive, in the three weeks from gyms reopening on July 25, just 17 people out of 8 million visits went on to test positive. In my own gym (on the University of Liverpool campus) we’re given our own cloth and spray. Never mind Covid, the barbells are probably cleaner than half the Cabinet.

Even Liverpool Labour’s cabinet member for public health and social care admitted in a tweet that the thinking behind the rules was not rooted in “pure science” but some considerably broader principles: 

Outside better than inside

Economy better than social

Food better than alcohol

We are talking about people’s liberty, livelihoods and health here. We should be basing it on the science, rather than a dodgy haiku.

However, there seems to be something about lockdowns which appeal to politicians and the voters – Liverpool mayor Joe Anderson has been calling for one since the end of September, Labour-run Wales now has lockdowns covering around 80% of the country, while a remarkable 46% of voters say they would support “a return to the lockdown conditions in place in March with a ban on people leaving their homes except for essential shopping, work and exercise”.

If we were basing policy on the latest scientific advice, there might be a bit less enthusiasm for lockdowns. Indeed, Dr David Nabarro. a Special Envoy to the Director General of the WHO, notes, “A middle path is needed…Too many restrictions damage people’s livelihoods and provoke resentment [but] ‘Virus run wild’ will lead to lots of deaths as well as debilitating long-Covid among younger people”. 

Nabarro notes that physical distancing, hand-washing, face-masking, self-isolation and shielding the most vulnerable will do the bulk of the work in tackling the virus. But all of this needs to be underpinned by an effective track-and-trace programme – something this Conservative government has been uniquely awful at.

Instead of being world-beating, our track-and-trace system is a global joke – it cannot even reach 50% of the easiest cases. It is worth noting that local councils have not been given enough powers in this area, and where they do undertake track-and-trace, they do a better job than the national system. 

The Government’s drive to get students back on campus has been another titanic balls-up. It is no surprise that we’re seeing cases increase in university cities when we’ve shipped in campus-loads of young people and then imprisoned them in their accommodation – even locking fire escapes lest some try to escape – only for many universities to then be forced to adopt online teaching at the last minute anyway!

Keir Starmer should not escape blame either. The Labour leader is all too happy to criticise the Prime Minister at the despatch box, but has engaged in precious little actual scrutiny of lockdown proposals.

This should be an open goal. After all, we have Labour mayors – led by Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester – up in arms over the Government’s plans, while Labour MPs are also organising to oppose these measures. Most importantly, we have a critical mass of Tory MPs opposed to arbitrary and unnecessarily excessive lockdown proposals. Starmer has a real chance not only to defeat a government with an 80-seat majority – no mean feat – but also to help steer the course of the Covid response, and show his leadership credentials. Instead he seems happy to sit tight, snipe from the sidelines a bit and then wind up supporting the Government, presumably because he knows a majority of voters still think lockdowns are the way to go.

As for Liverpool, the city itself might not matter to the Conservatives, given the scant prospect of the Scouse Socialist Republic turning blue any time soon. But voters across the Tories’ hallowed Blue Wall aren’t that different from any other voter – and competence matters. Labour are back to being neck-and-neck with the Conservatives in the polls, Starmer is beating Johnson on best PM ratings and is wisely steering clear of the kind of woke Twitter fads that put off many voters. 

By 2024, with the bulk of Brexit sorted, and 14 years of the Conservatives in power, what will Boris have to campaign on? 

A botched response to Covid, where the death rate fell just short of the US and Brazil and an unscientific lockdown policy tanked the economy. And all in a nation where, despite the second-highest level of obesity in the EU, you could grab a Big Mac but not a dumbbell.

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Dr David Jeffery is a Lecturer in British Politics at the University of Liverpool.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.