On Wednesday, England marked the end of a monthlong, pre-Christmas lockdown—the second this year. But the easing of restrictions hardly spells the end for increasing divisions over the government’s COVID-19 strategy in one of Europe’s hardest-hit countries.
Those divisions are between England’s north and the south, which face widely differing restrictions as lockdown ends; between England and the U.K.’s other nations, which have increasingly charted their own course in managing the pandemic; and between factions within the ruling Conservative Party, over whether the restrictions go too far.
The news isn’t all bad. On Wednesday, the British government announced the U.K. was the first nation to approve a COVID-19 vaccine—produced by Pfizer and BioNTech—and said that it would be available by next week. The government also released the list of how the vaccine will be rolled out, with care home residents and their caregivers being vaccinated first, according to the BBC.
“We can see that by the spring we are going to be through this,” Health Secretary Matt Hancock told Sky News on Wednesday.
The monthlong restrictions have successfully managed to sharply reduce the daily infections and deaths in England, although levels still remain far above those in the summer. But the new restrictions have highlighted deeply felt regional divides.
While London will go into Tier 2—allowing more than one household to meet, even at outdoor pubs and markets, in groups of up to six—many cities in the north, including Manchester, face much tighter restrictions that barely differ from a full lockdown.
Manchester has been under local lockdowns since the summer, when cases in the area spiked, and is expected to remain heavily restricted until the spring. The exception is Christmas, when the entire U.K. will have what is essentially a five-day holiday from most restrictions.
But those rules have led to frustration, not just from leaders in the north of England, but also from a slate of Conservative Party backbenchers, who have grown increasingly critical of Johnson’s leadership. They argue that the rules are devastating local businesses and are not sufficiently targeted.
On Tuesday, 54 Tory MPs voted against their own party’s restrictions—a large enough number that the bill could have been defeated if Labour, the main opposition party, hadn’t abstained from the vote.
Meanwhile, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland have increasingly set their own pace on restrictions in the months since the U.K.-wide six-week lockdown in the spring. That means Johnson, despite being Prime Minister of the entire U.K., in effect often speaks only for England. Scotland, for example, has its own five-tiered system.
Brexit and bankruptcies
Since March, the British government has seemingly hopped from one political crisis to the next, from scandals over testing equipment and PPE mismanagement to high-profile U-turns that followed widespread outrage over botched exam results and meals for underprivileged children.
That also appears to have had an impact on public support. As of Nov. 30, YouGov reported that 52% of Britons disapproved of the government’s record. At the start of November, that disapproval rating hit a pandemic-high of 56%.
But the government is also facing a slate of crises that go beyond infection numbers—including the prospect of a cliff-edge divorce from the EU, amid warnings from Parliament’s own watchdog that the government is still not prepared for Brexit, more than four years after the referendum result. Any post-Brexit U.K.-EU trade deal will need to be agreed, ratified, and in place on Jan. 1 if chaos is to be minimized.
Meanwhile, the U.K.’s economic crisis has deepened into what is expected to be the worst recession in 300 years—most recently signaled by stalwarts of the British high street, including the legacy department store Debenhams and Arcadia Group, the parent company of Topshop, going into administration earlier this week.
As of Wednesday, a cumulative total of 1.6 million people in the U.K. have tested positive for COVID-19, while 69,752 people have died.
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