Minju Jung By: Minju Jung
Doctoral Researcher in Politics and International Relations
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07 Nov 2020 : The UK's second national Covid lockdown that was not inevitable

It has been a month since I flew to Korea, and England has entered into a second lockdown since this Thursday. People here do not talk about the pandemic much, neither do the media. COVID-19 news, except the daily number of cases and deaths, seemingly has been no longer in the front pages of the media. Instead, stupid quarrels in Korean politics and fine dust blown in from China have earned media coverage and public attention. In recent weeks, particularly people have been more interested in the unpredictable political drama happening in the US than COVID-19 that has been around for a long time. So, since I stay in Korea, I feel that the presence and effect of the pandemic on me is getting diminished.

However, on the other hand, the pandemic has penetrated my life more than when I was in the UK, because of frequent mobile phone texts from central and local governments. My cell phone buzzes, and a text notification pops up on the screen. This means that I’ve got a text from my local, neighbouring or central government, because I normally use Messenger to contact my friends. This text informs me of the emergence of a new case and reminds me of COVID-19 daily guidelines. My phone buzzes several times a day delivering COVID-19 information.

When a new case emerges, local governments trace the people he/she may have come in contact with. However, they also text everyone in their administrative district regardless of where they actually reside, to make them aware of the emergence of the new case. With each notification, they inform people of the case’ residential area and places where the case had visited along with the timeline.

Texts from Korea Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) have different information from those from the local governments. It texts all the people to inform of the emergence of a super spreader of the virus or to remind people about daily COVID-19 guidelines.

The text that I have just got informs me that another case has been tested positive in my local area, and this makes the total number 411 (Case No. 411). It also urges me to visit the local infirmary to take a test or the designated place to disinfect my car, if I have visited places where Case No. 411 had visited earlier. The local government will notify on their webpage whether these places have been cleaned or not. These details of the case are to be removed after 14 days. Their texts of confirmed cases have helped me respond to the virus in my daily life and become an important indicator for my outdoor activities.

It seems that the Korean and the UK governments have chosen different paths to curb the pandemic and to achieve the status of herd immunity by slowing down the spread of the virus: while the Korean government has chosen establishing a test-and-trace system, the UK government has imposed a national lockdown in England.

The Korean government has used a coronavirus test-and-trace system as a key tool to control the virus, and this texting service is a part of the system. So far, it seems to work quite effectively. It might have been effective in Korea, perhaps because the number of cases here has been relatively smaller than other countries with a higher number of cases. Today, on 6 November, there have been 89 new cases and 1 person has died from the virus. Therefore, as of today, 27,284 have contracted the virus, and 477 have lost their lives since the outbreak of the pandemic.

Perhaps, the Korean government could avoid imposing national lockdown or closing its economy, by establishing a coronavirus test-and-trace system. The government might have chosen this strategy because it cannot afford to provide its economic sectors with an incredibly enormous amount of financial support as the UK government has done. Or, they might have followed the lesson from its experience of the MERS outbreak in 2013 (perhaps, they have chosen this strategy for both reasons).

The number of deaths from the virus seems to prove that Korea's policy saves more people than the UK’s lockdown measure, so far. I think that Korea’s relative success was partially due to its test-and-trace system. However, I do not believe that the South Korean government has been responding best to the pandemic. Many people have died due to the virus, and people are suffering from economic recession due to the pandemic. And, nobody will know which governments have done better in this pandemic until the end, and COVID-19 pandemic will not end until a COVID-19 vaccine has been distributed to everyone in the world.

Even so, I rarely see the effectiveness of a lockdown measure in this pandemic (in particular, in a long-term). A national lockdown, which the UK government has imposed in England, stagnates its economy and restricts people’s right to free movement, which in turn causes severe public mental health problems.

It seems that the government has never had a control of the spread of the coronavirus. Also, it seems that the UK government has been focusing more on the mitigation of the repercussions of the outbreak, than on preventing the outbreak itself in a somewhat aggressive way. However, I think its consistent consideration of a lockdown measure and efforts to increase the number of testing without proper track and tracing the virus may not make much difference in addressing the current pandemic situation, because these measures do not focus on expelling the virus from its territory.

Boris Johnson’s administration has had people stay inside, waiting for the virus to lose its interest in the UK and leave the territory. The government might fail to contain the spread of the virus again and face the resurgence of the cases with their lockdown measure, unless it tests, tracks and traces cases properly. During a lockdown, people do not always stay at home: going out for even limited purposes such as grocery shopping spreads the virus. This may certainly happen if lockdown rules are not strict enough, as seen in England’s second lockdown rules.

Given these understandings, it is difficult for me to understand why the UK government, despite the repercussions of a lockdown measure, continues to take this stand and imposes the second national lockdown, instead of strengthening their test-and-trace system. Why has the UK government been pouring an incredibly huge amount of money to respond to the effects of the lockdown, risking national financial deficiencies? It could, instead, build a robust test-and-trace system which requires significantly a modicum amount of money and saves the public’s mental health.

Also, I am wondering why the voices emphasising the importance of the effective COVID-19 track-trace system have been dismissed, or not yet considered in a serious manner, while discussing policy options. Why has the UK public not urged the government strongly to establish a competent test-and-trace system, while focusing on what support they would get from the government during the lockdown? (I may be incorrect here because I may not know what exactly is going on in the UK). 

It would be a great help for people in the UK, if they could know whether a new case emerges in their local and neighbouring areas, where the case has visited and whether the places have been cleaned and are safe to visit. With this information, they can protect themselves and their loved ones in a more effective way.

The UK’s largely incompetent track-trace system cannot be attributed to its technology. Rather, I think it is a matter of the UK government’s and public’s willingness to do so. This second national lockdown would have been evitable if the government had built an effective coronavirus test-and-trace system. The extension of the current lockdown or the third national lockdown would not be necessary if the UK government could establish the track-trace system. Better late than never.   

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