Tom Goodenough

The real north-south Covid divide is in London

The real north-south Covid divide is in London
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From Friday night, southerners are set to be cooped up in their homes because of high Covid rates in the north. I’m talking, of course, about the decision to impose tier two restrictions on London. The capital’s nine million people will be banned from socialising indoors with people they don’t live with and commuters urged to stay off public transport. It’s clear that the rising rate of infection in London meant that something needed to be one. But treating the capital as one is a big mistake.

Nine out of the ten boroughs with the highest infection rates in the capital are north of the river. And the eight boroughs with the lowest number of cases per 100,000 people are all in south London.

While Bexley, Bromley, Sutton and Croydon all have fewer than 70 cases per 100,000 people, Hackney and the city of London, Ealing, Redbridge and Harrow – which are all in north London – have rates reaching nearly double these levels. It’s true that the borough with the highest rate of infections is south of the river. But Richmond’s figures may have been skewed because some of those cases actually occurred in other parts of England, such as Leeds, Exeter, Manchester and Durham (it’s been claimed that students’ home addresses are taken into account if they test positive for Covid).

Sadiq Khan, at least, will be happy with the government’s decision to treat London as one block. Earlier this week, he told Sky News:

‘We're keen to go as one as we can see the complexities and the confusion caused by some boroughs having additional restrictions and other boroughs having less. Many Londoners work in one borough, live in another borough, study in another borough, go to a restaurant in another borough, so we're really keen to go as one city.'

This might, of course, be true in normal times, but does it apply at the moment? Even before these latest rules were introduced, London’s city centre has been largely deserted, suggesting that many Londoners are following the advice to work from home if they can. If people are heading to pubs and restaurants, they are likely to be doing so within their own boroughs. And if they are travelling further afield, it seems highly unlikely that they are bothering to make the journey across the river in any great numbers to do so – a trip which can be difficult enough to persuade a London cab driver to do at the best of times, let alone in the midst of a pandemic.

The streets of Bromley are plastered with signs urging people to ‘avoid a local lockdown’. Yet while Covid rates remain relatively low there, it seems that the spike in infection in other parts of the city is enough to impose blanket restrictions on all of the capital’s boroughs. 

It might be the case that doing so is a sensible pre-emptive step to ensure Covid doesn’t spread in those areas of the capital which have not been as badly affected. But it will come at a big price for south London’s pubs, restaurants and other local businesses which are struggling to get on their feet. It also raises a broader question of when these latest restrictions might be lifted. Will high rates of Covid infections in one or two boroughs be enough to mean that the lockdown continues, even if rates remain low in many other parts of London? These are questions which Khan – and the government – must quickly address.