Although some remain inclined to point the finger at the UK government’s missteps in tackling the COVID-19 pandemic, the explanation for its evolving approach is more complex. It also holds important lessons for managing future crises.
CAMBRIDGE – UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s recent warning that the lifting of England’s current third lockdown will be no “great open Sesame,” despite the fall in infections and the encouraging progress of the country’s COVID-19 vaccination program, should come as no surprise to anyone who has been following the underlying dynamics of the virus. So, why did Johnson’s government not take this approach during the country’s first two lockdowns?
Although some remain inclined to point the finger at the government’s missteps, the explanation is more complex. It also holds important lessons for managing future crises.
After England’s initial lockdown last spring imposed a sudden and powerful brake on social interactions and significantly damaged the economy, the UK government was keen to restore dynamism to particularly hard-hit sectors. For example, it launched an “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme, which offered discounts on meals in restaurants, pubs, and cafes during August. Although the government was less permissive when the country exited the second lockdown in December, it did allow a certain amount of social and economic interaction and eased the restrictions further in much of the country for Christmas.
In both cases, the government subsequently had to hit the brakes hard as COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations rose. Interim efforts to develop a compromise approach through a regionally differentiated “tier system” of restrictions proved problematic – especially because limiting the movement of people was difficult. That in turn triggered a robust blame game, with many initially taking issue with frequent changes in government policy and the inevitably confused messaging that ensued.
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