Perhaps the most charitable interpretation of this flurry of activity is that the government wants to send a message. The daily briefings ended months ago, and many people pay little or no attention to the news. Having spent August encouraging people to go back to the office and into pubs and restaurants, the government may have given the impression that the threat has subsided. Closing the pubs at 10pm and forcing shop assistants to wear face masks will send out a signal that it has not.
The sense that the government is trying to scare us straight was confirmed by the theatrics of Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance who used a highly misleading graph based on the false claim that infections are doubling every seven days to tell us that we have less than a month to change our ways.
It is a vicious circle of over-correction from a government struggling to get the balance right. It is debatable whether a balance can be struck at all if the strategy is to minimise deaths from an endemic virus at all costs. The implicit logic can only lead to lockdown. But, for now, the hope remains that if people just follow the rules when out and about, and self-isolate for 14 days when told to, the situation can be turned around. There is no evidence that closing pubs early will help – only five per cent of new cases arise in hospitality venues and the policy may simply encourage more house parties – but it might remind the public that the virus is still out there.
As symbolic measures go, it is an expensive one. The full cost to pubs and restaurants will only be known when the bankruptcy and unemployment figures are published, but one publican claims that the new closing time could halve takings. In restaurants, it will mean seating everybody by 8.30pm. After a three-and-a-half-month lockdown, the hospitality industry is so fragile that many of its businesses only need the slightest push to go over the brink.
Mandatory table service has more to recommend it. It will reduce efficiency somewhat, but is unlikely to be an existential threat. Mandatory table service is one of the measures introduced by the Swedish government – which remarkably recorded a budget surplus last month – as an alternative to lockdown. The Swedes can look to the winter with less trepidation than the rest of Europe, but there is little sign of the British government learning from their approach.
The government surely does not want a second lockdown, but it is difficult to tell whether it is bluffing. The number of people in hospital with COVID-19 is at barely five per cent of the level seen at the April peak and large parts of the country remain virtually unscathed. The measures announced this week will not be enough to get the infection rate below 1 on their own, but if enough people get the message that things are moving in the wrong direction, there is still a chance that suppression will succeed.