It’ll all end in tiers

As England emerges from lockdown, we’ve learnt more and more about the revamped the 3-tier system. And with the government’s announcement of the Christmas Covid Rules edition of The Purge, everything feels a long way from Johnson’s line from earlier in the year about ‘following the science’. 

The public have also begun to discover more about exactly what tier they’ll be placed into. The highest tier, Tier 3, will now see more restrictions imposed than its pre-November equivalent, and will include many more counties than the first time round. 

The focus on county-level measures has been a source of significant criticism. Counties vary in size hugely, from the 8600 square kilometres of North Yorkshire to the City of London’s 2.9km2. Some counties, such as Kent, in the South East, have huge variety in the number of Covid cases per 100,000 people, with some areas reporting case rates seven times higher than others (source: Kent County Council). 

The reasoning for designating tiers (for the large part) by ceremonial county has never been made clear by the government. One popular justification has been that hospital provision is easiest to coordinate on a county-by-county basis, but it’s important to note that NHS trust areas and county boundaries don’t often line up.

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However, there are some exceptions to the government’s plans to work at County level. For example, the town of Slough has been singled out as falling in Tier 3, when the rest of Berkshire is in Tier 2. But the same hasn’t been done in Lancashire, where Covid rates per 100,000 people reach over 9,000 in Blackburn, but only 1,900 in the adjacent Ribble Valley ward (source: Lancashire County Council). London’s 32 boroughs are also being considered on an individual basis. This could result in some odd situations where boundaries between boroughs, and tiers, run down the middle of a road, or through the middle of buildings. 

The pre-lockdown tier system was widely ridiculed for being unnecessarily pedantic. Why did gyms close in Liverpool but not in Lancaster? Is the Liverpudlian Covid more fitness-focused than its Lancastrian equivalent? The saga of playground bickering with Andy Burnham in Manchester seemed to be the epitome of the Johnson government’s politicised decision making. The reintroduced tiers seem to be more blanket, but we’ll have to wait and see how that plays out.

Off the back of November’s lockdown, the 3 Tier system seems to be the new long-term plan for England. But with scientists increasingly sounding the alarm about the ramifications of the Government’s 5-day Christmas bubbling scheme, another lockdown might be on the horizon, regardless of how ardently government ministers deny that that will happen. 

In the last few days, students at English universities have begun to receive some guidance about what their return to campus will look like in January. The government’s priority is to get students on courses like medicine and veterinary medicine, which require a lot of practical sessions, back on campus first, with other students not returning to their university towns until later in the term, possibly as late as February. This, of course, relies on the government’s 3 tier system proving effective at preventing the post-Christmas Covid surge and potential subsequent lockdown. 

I can’t help but feel there’s a couple of issues with the government’s plans though. Firstly, many students will struggle to complete online learning to the best of their ability from their family home. I know my academic performance would certainly suffer if I did Semester two from home. A potentially larger issue, though, is that the government plan lacks any means of enforcement. What’s to stop students in privately rented accommodation simply returning to their flats whenever they like? This is university, not boarding school. The whole announcement has a strong undertone of being written by people who’ve not been on a University campus since they were students themselves. 

There’s been a consistent failure from Westminster to grasp an important point: university students, for the very large part, are adults. The government can’t just take away our supper and send us to our room, they can’t just ground us. It’s not going to work. And so, when the UK’s 2.3 million students do decide to return to their university towns in January, the government is going to be caught, once again, with its trousers down. Ultimately, we’ll be back where we were in September, with the media hounding students who are only trying their best to engage with their still full-price education. Just because a plan makes sense on paper, doesn’t mean it’ll work in practice – literally every student in the country who’s ever planned a practical or an essay could tell you that. The government just doesn’t seem to have grasped that. 

Image: Boris Johnson via Flickr

By Emma Hunt

Culture and Opinion writer