Why London’s Tier 2 lockdown couldn’t be borough by borough

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London is back in lockdown again. All of the capital’s boroughs are now at Tier 2, bringing the total number of people in England under enhanced lockdown measures to more than 27.7 million people.
The new Tier 2 lockdown restrictions mean people are unable to mix with other households indoors (including in pubs and other hospitality venues) and mayor Sadiq Khan has said people should limit the number of journeys they make using public transport. While the restrictions are a far cry from those that limited people’s freedoms in March, they bring London in line with large parts of the north-east and Leicester which has faced lockdown similar conditions for months.

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As with local lockdowns elsewhere in England, questions have been raised about the scope of the Tier 2 restrictions across London and the decision-making process behind them. “Many of the boroughs are bigger than most of the towns in the rest of the UK,” Iain Duncan Smith, Conservative MP for Chingford and Woodford Green, said to health secretary Matt Hancock in the House of Commons. “Surely we need to look again at the London-wide nature of this Tier 2 position. Even regional areas could be taken out.” Bromley and Chislehurst MP Robert Neill said he believed restrictions were “neither targeted nor proportionate”.
When it comes to Covid-19, not all of London’s 32 boroughs are equal. Ealing (144.8 per 100,000), Richmond upon Thames (137.9) and Hackney and the City of London (128.2) had the highest number of cases up to October 11. Meanwhile, Greenwich (72.6), Bromley (70.1) and Bexley (68.5) had the least amount of cases per 100,000 people.
So why has the whole of London gone into lockdown at the same time? Despite the case differences across different boroughs, London’s complex infrastructure and constantly shifting population help explain why Tier 2 conditions have been applied across the entire city.
“We considered a borough by borough approach, but because of the integrated nature of London and because, unfortunately, cases are rising fast across London, we decided that the best approach is for the whole of London to go into level two together,” Hancock told MPs. He added that on average, across all of the boroughs, the city was reaching the 100 cases per 100,000 threshold.

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Others agree. “There is a varied picture of how many cases are in the various local authorities,” says Axel Gandy, the chair of statistics at Imperial College London who has been involved with building prediction modelling tools for Covid-19 cases across the UK. “But overall, the reproduction number seems to be above one in all of the areas. All areas are on the same track, but of course, they’re at different points.”
Lara Goscé a research fellow in modelling at University College London’s Institute for Health says “we are way past” introducing borough-level lockdown measures. Local lockdown measures are the most useful at the beginning of an epidemic, she says. And this is not the beginning of an epidemic.
“When the infection is already widespread inside cities, it’s not closing airports or stopping trips between one city and the other that has the biggest impact, but instead stopping local transmission inside the city itself,” Goscé adds. She questions whether the lockdown measures in London should be set at the higher Tier 3 restrictions which would force pubs to close and prevent household mixing outdoors.
The tensions of introducing lockdown restrictions in London echo many of those elsewhere in the country. As the city’s 3,640 pubs and 7,556 restaurants are not formally being shut they are not able to claim government support. Northern leaders have been leading calls for greater government support for both individuals and businesses as their regions have suffered from the consequences of prolonged lockdowns.

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Computer scientists and statisticians at Brunel University have been working to simulate Covid-19 outbreaks across various London boroughs. Their model uses data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), OpenStreetMap, and various NHS and hospital sources to predict at local levels what the impact of new surges of Covid-19 will have on individual boroughs. The team working as part of the Flu and Coronavirus Simulator (FACS) has modelled around eight boroughs so far.
“One thing we saw, quite clearly, is that the various local measures have quite similar effects across different boroughs,” explains Derek Groen, a lecturer in simulation and modelling at Brunel. The FACS model recreates every person in a London borough, for instance 300,000 people in Brent, and simulates their lives.
The people in the simulation (known as agents) are all assigned jobs and behaviours based on ONS census data about the area and their movements are modelled. People go to work, visit shops, and mingle with others. The model aims to forecast how local lockdown measures can impact the transmission of Covid-19 and is validated against real-world data from hospitals. The tool’s findings have been described as “pessimistic”.
Groen says the situation is similar in most boroughs – although the big caveat is less than half of London’s boroughs have been mapped. “There are some differences, but there’s not some overarching conclusion,” he explains. “There’s a slight relationship in that the boroughs that seemed to be hit more heavily in the first wave have a slightly flatter curve in the second wave, but that’s a very small difference.”
Groen says more data should be available to help create specific models for individual areas. The new lockdown measures have been criticised for not taking into account the higher transmission rates of Covid-19 amongst people from BAME communities. “There has not been any tailored action to try and stop Covid-19 running unchecked through minority ethnic communities again,” Parth Patel, who has been researching the impact of Covid-19 for the Institute for Public Policy Research, previously told WIRED.
People are also likely to travel across London for work or to socialise, making specific borough lockdown conditions harder to enforce. The latest London movement data from Google (PDF) shows public transport use is down by 47 per cent compared to a normal month. Goscé says that historic Transport for London data from before the pandemic shows that there are a number of boroughs where people often travel to. These include the City of London, Camden and Hackney but also Hammersmith and Fulham, Islington, Kensington and Chelsea, Lambeth, Newham, Southwark and Tower Hamlets. Other boroughs are different though.
“People who live in Sutton seem to move mostly inside Sutton itself, but if they leave, the areas where they commute towards the most are Westminster, Corydon and Southwark,” Goscé says. “While Harrow seems to have most trips to and from Brent, Westminster and Hillington in this order.”
At the start of the pandemic, before the national lockdown started, the government’s Sage committee considered the impact of imposing lockdown conditions on London transport. “Members discussed the benefits of stopping or reducing public transport but concluded this would have minimal effect,” the committee concluded on March 18. At that time the city had higher transmission rates than the rest of the UK and a lack of mass testing made it impossible to get a full picture.
There’s also the issue of enforcement. Ahead of the new Tier 2 lockdown rules coming into force across London, the city’s police force said it will take stronger action against the worst offenders. Matt Twist, the Metropolitan Police’s lead for Covid-19, said in a statement that the force will increase its efforts against “the most deliberate, harmful and flagrant breaches of regulations”. People have been encouraged to report serious breaches by dialling 101 with the Met saying enforcement will be a “last resort”.
Having the same London lockdown conditions imposed across the capital will make police messaging simpler. People will not be able to claim they are in a certain area or have travelled from one place to mix with other households. But this is something that might soon be a problem on the English-Welsh border. Welsh first minister Mark Drakeford has said people living in areas with high levels of Covid-19 infections in England will not be able to travel to Wales.
As the pandemic has progressed police forces have been given more powers to fine people breaking lockdown rules and fines of up to £10,000 can now be issued for some rule breaches. “In the beginning, you can have a lot of compliance from people because the rules are new,” says Zoha Waseem, a researcher at University College London’s Institute for Global City Policing. “But over time, fatigue does set in”.
One teenager has faced the maximum fine for hosting a house party of 50 people. This level of punishment has been rare though, with smaller fines being issued for those that don’t follow the rules. A gym in Merseyside that had been told to close was fined £1,000 when it refused to do so; a wedding party with more than 100 guests was also broken up in London.
Waseem says that as people become fatigued by lockdown restrictions, policing needs to be handled carefully. She warns that neighbourhoods should not be over-policed and community tensions should be taken into account. “More practically, it might serve the police to focus on areas where there are more infections and then move away when that gets better.”
Matt Burgess is WIRED’s deputy digital editor. He tweets from @mattburgess1
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