Robert Peston: What can we learn from Bolton’s Covid-19 spike

Credit: PA

The cause of the latest spike of coronavirus cases in Bolton points to why we need continued vigilance against Covid-19, and why it would be highly surprising if we were not now set on an upward national trend.

Because the locus of the Bolton surge was some pubs, and possibly one in particular. And it may be connected to young people socialising after returning from higher risk holiday destinations.

This is an important phenomenon. It means the outbreak is correlated with life in general returning to semi-normal, rather than to specific cultural or localised factors.

The point is that the data shows that earlier summer surges in parts of the Midlands and North West have been disproportionately manifested in Asian communities or in specific factories.

But with children returning to schools, some students returning to universities and some workers going back to “workplaces”, there are now national changes - rather than just local structural factors - that will increase the rate of infection.

So the big Covid-19 question is whether the UK is just two or three weeks behind the surge in cases we are seeing in France or Spain or - just possibly, and unlike last time - on a lower growth trajectory.

Very recent history would obviously suggest that - when it comes to coronavirus - where France and Spain lead, the UK follows.

But there are a couple of reasons to be cautiously optimistic that in the so-called second wave the UK trend may be nearer Germany’s lower rate rather than breaking records as pretty much the worst in Europe.

The first reason stems from the structure of the economy, the UK’s disproportionately large financial and business service industries, in which home working is much easier and therefore still prevalent.

Boris Johnson may lament that more employees are returning to work places on the continent than here, but perhaps our stay-at-home preference is depressing the viral surge in a utilitarian way.

Second we may like to kvetch about bungled local lockdowns, a system for tracing contacts of those tested that has struggled to hit optimal performance and repeated testing bottlenecks - but France and Spain have not been best in class when it comes to prophylactic action.

The row between Marseilles and Paris over appropriate action to combat a serious increase in cases in France’s second city makes this weeks spat between Manchester and Westminster look tame.

Increased protective measures were put in place in Marseilles at rates of infection six times greater than what triggers local lockdown here.

So don’t assume that the the UK’s history of Covid-19 bungling is baked in.

This government has spent an untold fortune on increasing testing capacity and establishing a system for locating those at risk of infection. More is promised.

It won’t have all been for nothing.