IT may be natural that the response to a renewed rise in Covid infection is to urge caution, and most scientific advisers to the UK governments have, in line with the precautionary principle, been arguing for further restrictions. There is, however, a strong case for caution before returning to the most severe restrictions, for asking questions about their utility, and whether they should be applied nationally.

An excessively cautious position to the coronavirus has the danger that it damages in other ways; there are already huge economic costs, including hundreds of thousands of jobs, disruption to education and a serious impact on other health issues. It is reasonable the Westminster, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish governments, local authorities and regional leaders such as Andy Burnham, mayor of Greater Manchester, consider the consequences of uniform measures and so-called “circuit-breaker” lockdown.

Lockdown in March, remember, was introduced with the expectation it would last for a few weeks, and some areas and individuals have hardly emerged from it yet. It was introduced with a specific purpose: to buy the NHS time to set up additional facilities (something largely achieved) and to create a robust testing and tracking system – something that, across the UK, still falls short of what is required for effective management of the disease.

If the first lockdown was a success, we ought not to require another; if it was not, what reason is there to believe a second will resolve matters? That is an overly crude characterisation of the problem, but is still a question that needs to be asked. The most that seems to be offered by another blanket lockdown is delay or an indefinite extension of restrictions. The former may simply push the peak of any second wave further into the depths of winter; the latter is unworkable without destroying liberty, the economy and ordinary life.

The current position, even if it heralds a second wave, is ignificantly different from that of March. Infection rates may appear worryingly high, and we should heed their rise, but they are not comparable, not least because we were then testing less. A better indication may be given by hospital admissions, which have been rising, but more slowly than in the first wave, and nowhere near the April peak of 185 a day. Intensive care and death figures, too, although rising, are nothing like the earlier stages of the disease.

So while rising infection is a concern, there is reason for optimism. It may be that fewer old and vulnerable are being affected; hospitals are coping; people are aware of, and largely observing, the measures – hygiene, social distancing, masks – effective in limiting transmission.

If some continued transmission is inevitable, there must be justification the gains from new restraints outweigh their costs. We still have no solid information about the numbers infected with few symptoms, or levels of population immunity or resistance. There is no firm data to suggest licensed premises are uniquely responsible for the current rise; the weight of the evidence in fact suggests they are safer, and subject to greater constraints than, for example, universities or gyms, while – despite rules on households mixing – most transmission seems to be in domestic settings.

Following the science – something we consistently advocate – ought not to mean adopting draconian measures with known and profoundly serious costs for employment, business, education and general health, on the off-chance they will avert the worst-case outcomes of mathematical projections – especially when those are increasingly divergent from clinical experience and empirical statistical data. Local, specific measures make sense where the evidence calls for it. The testing system urgently needs sorting. But an excessively prescriptive, one-size-fits-all approach that causes untold damage and misery is not the cautious option, but a reckless one.