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Another day, another lockdown: Why is the UK struggling so much against COVID-19?

Boris Johnson announced a new lockdown for England to be reviewed in February
Boris Johnson announced a new lockdown for England to be reviewed in February Copyright Tolga Akmen/AP
Copyright Tolga Akmen/AP
By Rachael Kennedy
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The four nations of the UK are up against a fast-spreading variant of COVID-19, which appears to reached all areas of the nation. Its strategy now relies mostly on the vaccine.


England is preparing to enter its third lockdown, while Scotland has already enacted one. Both Wales and Northern Ireland introduced stay-at-home measures in December; the former since closing schools and the latter promising to formalise measures back into law.

The four nations of the UK, like wider Europe, have been struggling with the winter wave of COVID-19, which was feared to be much worse than in summer due to the virus lasting longer and people spending more time indoors.

But the UK, it seems, has been hit particularly hard. On multiple occasions in the last week it has shattered its own records of daily case numbers, starting on December 29 with 53,135, a number beaten when 55,892 cases were reported on New Year's Eve.

Another record was hit on January 2 with 57,725 cases, only to be eclipsed again on Monday when 58,784 cases were reported. By Tuesday, the UK had raced past yet another milestone, breaching the 60,000 mark for the first time. A total 60,916 new infections had been reported. 

This also marked the eighth day in a row that cases were above 50,000.

New variant or mixed government messaging?

The rapidly rising infections have been widely attributed to the new variant of the disease - said to be 50% to 70% more transmissible than previous variants - although Britons, too, have questioned whether confused strategies from the government are partly to blame.

"We, here, in the UK have probably seen the worst of the mixed messaging," said Alastair Campbell, who once worked as the director of communications for former prime minister Tony Blair. He went on to tell Euronews that it was down to "something that is affecting politics in many parts of the world," ie: "populism". 

Populism, the political strategist continued, is a phenomenon "infecting parts of the European body politic" and comes up against "a very fact-based approach from the scientific community". He added: "Frankly, they take bits they want to hear, to tell the public what they think [the public] wants to hear." 

Such an example could include the promised four-nation joint approach to special restrictions at Christmas, which began with an assured five-day relaxing of rules but ended with even stricter measures than before, including cancelled festivities, travel bans, a brand new tier of tough restrictions and lockdowns.

Pictures taken in London in the week before Christmas showed thousands of people packed into major train stations as they raced to get home after the U-turn was announced and before last-minute rules came into force.

Now, back-dated coronavirus case records show more than 80,000 new infections were recorded in the UK on December 29 alone.

There are also more people being treated for COVID-19 in hospitals now than there were in the April peak of the pandemic - and doctors are bracing for more to come as the delayed effect from Christmas is expected.

A "major incident" was declared across the south-eastern county of Essex last week due to pressure on healthcare services, and a similar "critical incident" was declared in Lincoln on Tuesday.

In Birmingham, one doctor's experience went viral after he posted a picture of a queue of ambulances waiting outside one hospital that was said to be lacking beds, while facilities in London said they were postponing operations to deal with the surge.

Alberto Pezzali/AP
London was placed into Tier 4 in the week before ChristmasAlberto Pezzali/AP

Another U-turn on schools

Fast forward to Sunday, and Boris Johnson was once again seen on British television encouraging parents to send their children back to school - a line he had repeated for weeks.


The UK prime minister told the BBC that there was "no doubt in my mind that schools are safe," adding that the risk to children was "very, very low".

Twenty-four hours later, however, after many children had already had their first day back, Johnson announced another lockdown in England, including the shuttering - again - of schools. He said: "I want to stress that the problem is not that schools are unsafe for children — children are still very unlikely to be severely affected by even the new variant of COVID.

"The problem is that schools may nonetheless act as vectors for transmission, causing the virus to spread between households."

According to Campbell, this was a good example of conflicting interests: "Why the change?" he asked. "Because the science has caught up with the populism."


"The prime minister has to step in, and there comes a point where he has to get a grip. You literally have to grip all of the decision making process; all of the facts; all of the science; and you then have to lead from the front.

"That's what I think has been missing in the UK."

Campbell said the problem, therefore, boils down to "having an honest conversation with the public," whom, he adds, "will take an awful lot". 

That's "as long as the leaders are being honest about the decisions that they're making and the reasons behind them, and they're honest about the consequences about the choices they're taking," he concluded.

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