Sir Graham Brady is Chairman of the 1922 Committee and is MP for Altrincham and Sale West.
From the start, combating the Covid-19 pandemic has required the Government to take some extraordinary measures. In March, the Prime Minister took the unprecedented step of imposing a full lockdown, backed by the full power of the Treasury, as Rishi Sunak pledged to do “whatever it takes” to support the economy.
That lockdown was supposed to be a one-off, an emergency intervention to prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed during the acute stage of the crisis.
It was a strategy intended to buy time. Time to dramatically increase Health Service capacity via the Nightingale hospitals, and time to develop the sort of track-and-trace infrastructure that would allow ministers to take a better targeted approach in future.
Yet as winter approaches – and with it the usual flu season and additional demands on the NHS – attempts to introduce restrictions on a regional basis have provoked a furious backlash from local government leaders. Now both they and the Opposition are calling for a second national lockdown – the so-called ‘circuit breaker’.
We should not get too distracted by the new name. It is extremely unlikely that new restrictions, if imposed, would only last for two or three weeks. It takes longer than that for the benefits of lockdown in controlling coronavirus to appear in the data. Are ministers likely to lift lockdown before it is seen to be working? Or the Opposition to support doing so? I think not, especially given that a two or three-week plan will take us deep into winter.
To properly debate the case for a second lockdown, we have to be honest about the fact that it will in all likelihood entail months of restrictions. And if a vaccine hasn’t arrived by the Spring – or if we haven’t got the necessary infrastructure to mass-manufacture and distribute a novel vaccine to the nation by then – this cycle will very likely extend into 2021 or even beyond.
But we also need to properly recognise the extraordinary toll that these measures are taking on the country. We were fortunate that during the initial lockdown the Chancellor was able to break out his ‘big bazooka’ on behalf of workers and businesses, but should never lose sight of the fact that intervention on that scale cannot be sustained indefinitely. Without it, the impact of lockdown on the economy will be severe.
This is one reason why ministers should not draw too much comfort from polls showing strong public support for lockdown. If the electorate is forced to bear the brunt of restrictions without that Treasury shield, the backlash will be swift. If you doubt it, just ask MPs or local government leaders from my own region, Greater Manchester.
Yet the cost of lockdown extends far beyond the public accounts. Suicide rates are up. People are missing out on life-saving operations and essential care. Millions are struggling with their mental health as restrictions cut them off from friends, family, and other support networks. Domestic violence is on the rise as women are trapped at home with violent partners.
All the while young people, who are amongst those least at risk from Covid-19, are paying a huge price. School has been disrupted, formative moments and milestones missed, and now many are confined to their dormitories at university. Does anyone honestly think that this is sustainable for a year, or more? The ‘lockdown raves’ we saw this summer will be just the start.
Journalists and campaigners have done good work highlighting these issues. But they are not being properly accounted for by policymakers. We have plenty of official statistics about the direct impact of Covid-19 (even if they are sometimes badly wrong). But precious few on the costs of fighting it.
It makes sense for the scientific advisers, whose task is advising the Government on combating coronavirus, to focus exclusively on it. But ministers do not have that luxury. They have a duty to take into account the best interests of the nation as a whole.
But they can’t do that without adequate data. So as we brace for what might be a long-haul fight against the pandemic, the Government must start accounting properly for the real costs of Covid-19. The Department of Health should compile and publish the statistics for excess deaths arising from reduced access to care. The Treasury should do the same for shuttered businesses and lost jobs.
Recent reports suggest that the Chancellor is prepared to take such action. It is very much to be hoped that he will, and that the Department of Heath will do likewise.
Having these figures to hand will not only help the Cabinet make key decisions, but may also lead to a more realistic understanding on the part of the public about what the real costs of the current strategy are.
The Government is rightly committed to trying to save as many people as possible. But a strategy which fixates on Covid patients, at the expense of letting other people fall between the cracks, does not do this.