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Sir John Redwood is MP for Wokingham, and is a former Secretary of State for Wales.

Most of us agree that priority goes to saving lives. If there is a conflict between medical needs and the needs of the economy, medical needs come first.

The most at risk people are the elderly and those with other medical conditions that makes it more difficult for them to fight off the virus. The main policy to protect them is to help them self isolate. To do this for a longish period of time will require good community help, to deliver food and other supplies to their doors, and to give them human contact without meeting in person.

It is also sadly true a few younger health workers have been attacked by the serious version of the virus, probably because they have been exposed to too much of it in their work. We need to redouble efforts to design and supply fully protective clothing so they are not at risk.

The UK is spending much resource on seeking treatments and vaccinations that can protect us better, but these may take time. Clearly no resource should be spared, and international collaboration is crucial to this work as well.

The issue of what the working age population should do and be allowed to do is more difficult to resolve. The current strategy is to prevent most people from working and to stay at home, or to find ways of working from home to the extent that that is possible.

If a large number of people have little or no contact with others apart from their immediate family, then that should reduce the risk of them catching the disease or passing it on. If many of these people did get it it would prove mild in most cases.

Governments have to allow a range of occupations to go to work so it cannot be a complete clampdown. We still need people to grow food, process it, deliver it to shops and sell it to the public.

People living at home need to know engineers, electricians, utility providers, plumbers and others are going to maintain and keep networks functioning and safe so there is water in the tap, power to light and heat our homes and broadband to allow us to work from home and to communicate with others.

There needs to be health and care workers looking after the old and sick, some transport to get workers to their places of employment and so on. It means the rest of us can live at home with the basics available, and those who need to be looked after are looked after.

It also means output and incomes do not collapse completely, as all who can work can still generate activity and receive pay for what they do.

The problem is that leaves a large part of the economy either closed down completely as with restaurants, hotels, tourist attractions, entertainment venues and most shops, or experiencing a big drop off in demand for everything from estate agency to car sales, from on line retailing of non essentials to the provision of business services.

The danger is that large numbers of people lose their jobs, many companies run out of cash and face penal financial reconstructions or bankruptcy, skilled workforces are laid off, rents are not paid. Most people have to cut back as they have an immediate fall in income, or fear the loss of their job or small business if the closures continue for too long.

We are looking at a possible deep recession, with a big surge in jobless and the loss of substantial capacity to produce goods and services for the future. All the economic advice points to getting people back to work as quickly as possible, to limit the losses.

If businesses can see that after a month they can start up again it is more likely they can bridge the gap. If they have to wait three months with no guarantee they can restart then, it becomes very difficult to keep things going.

As more businesses fall over or give up, so do supply contracts. The supply chains are damaged and we end up with more scarcity and reduced choice.

If the Government’s new tests to see if someone has had the disease work well, then the very least that should happen is all those who have a test result showing they now have antibodies against the virus should be allowed back to work to start the revival.

Better still would be for the Government to say they will have a two or three week firebreak with the extensive closures we now have to brake the upward momentum of the viral spread, but then allow the return to start for all people not in the vulnerable categories.

Such an announcement would save many businesses and jobs in its own right, allow more orderly supply, and cushion the recession that will otherwise be deep.

One of the main purposes of the closures is to buy time to get more capacity into the NHS. We hear the equivalent of 50 NHS hospitals have been cleared within existing provision to handle virus cases, and there are three large field hospitals well advanced adding many more beds. The workforce has been expanded by recalling retired trained people and by adding in the armed forces resources and those of the private sector hospitals. This was a valuable gain from the delay closures has allowed.

A way has to found to do the right thing by those who will be seriously ill with this virus, and at the same time to avoid the biggest post-war recession doing large scale-economic damage, leaving many families with out of work adults, with broken businesses or with much reduced incomes. Public policy often needs to do more than one thing at the same time.

Given the nature of this epidemic and the people it targets it should be possible to come up with an answer that does the right thing by the ill while also allowing more people to earn a living.

128 comments for: John Redwood: The Government should prepare for a return to normal work for people not in the vulnerable categories

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