Throughout the lockdown I’ve kept visiting my local corner shop, a sort of United Nations of convenience retail in my corner of Hackney. For several weeks, I could feel and shared the anxiety of staff as we transacted at arms’ length. For a while, some of them wore face masks. I’ve learned from a fellow customer that she did the same out of deference to one of them’s obvious fretfulness about contracting the virus.
But when I went in yesterday, I was struck by a much lighter mood. The sun was shining, all the masks were gone. I bought my coffee from outside the shop, as has become usual, and customers who went in still dodged each other in the aisles. However, the low-level tension of previous weeks had disappeared. “Are you feeling happier?” I asked. “Much happier, yes.”
Of course, attitudes to lockdown and manifestations of it vary hugely across a city of London’s size and variety. A police photograph of Bank Holiday crowds at Ruislip Lido might suggest, depending on your reading of the effects of camera angles, that, in the minds of some Londoners, it’s pretty much over. By contrast, Andrew Murray, author of the State of Soho, tells me the streets round his way are still pretty quiet, with very little traffic and few pedestrians. My own neighbourhood often feels pretty normal in terms of pavement footfall and mood.
Bearing this mixed picture in mind, is there a case for releasing London from lockdown more quickly than other parts of the country? Having been hammered harder and faster by Covid-19 than anywhere else, the capital has, for some time, been seeing its infection and mortality rates falling more quickly than those of other regions. For over a fortnight, fewer than 50 new infections per day have been reported in a population of nine million. Our R-number is surely further below the magic one than that of most other places. Doesn’t that mean we should be treated differently?
There is a national interest argument here too. The UK’s dependence on London’s economy is very great – something the government’s recent interventions in Greater London Authority affairs might be seen as a tacit recognition of, even while its “levelling up” spiel prohibits this reality being mentioned. The precise purpose and value of the London Transition Board, to be c0-chaired by Sadiq Khan and his London Plan adversary communities secretary Robert Jenrick, has yet to become clear, but the fact of its formation hints that Boris Johnson hasn’t forgotten that London is what he used to laud as the engine room of the UK economy.
Conservative AM Andrew Boff, a strong advocate of more powers being provided to the GLA, including over healthcare, thinks national government “should be willing to say, actually, London can come out a little earlier”. Boff stresses that not everyone is observing social distancing as they should be – “common sense is not very common” – but, given the progress on infection rates, believes London’s non-essential shops could probably open a week earlier than the government-announced nationwide date of 15 June.
While recognising that the city might have to adjust and respond to new expert advice and infection flare-ups, Boffs feels that “to hold one part of the country back on the basis that another part is still struggling doesn’t seem sensible. A lot of people have lost their jobs and a lot of companies are raring to go, to earn the money we’re going to need to pay for these weeks of the lockdown.”
If London government, specifically the current London Mayor, did have more freedom to plot its own path out of lockdown, it seems possible that the capital would actually be re-opening more slowly rather than more quickly than at present. Sadiq Khan has several times argued for sterner lockdown measures and said two weeks ago that he wants no more loosening until a proven test-and-trace system is in place, and his and Transport for London’s concerns about crowding on Tubes and buses are very real.
Even so, with London now leading the way in getting to grips with Covid-19 and a bespoke track-and-trace system being designed, there are some solid arguments for freeing it from at least some aspects of the lockdown more quickly – arguments whose devolution dimension national government ought to be receptive to in future.
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