David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the recent general election.
You don’t need to be a socialist to feel uneasy about the inequality of harm caused by the coronavirus and accompanying lockdown.
The old, poor, obese and black are much more likely to die from this politically incorrect disease than the young, rich, slim and white. Some have seen their incomes and job security devastated, others are untouched. The experience of lockdown will vary depending upon the nature of one’s home and (if you are lucky) garden.
When we are through all this, the argument will be made that it will be for the State to redistribute the detriment, to more fairly share out the harm. Just like the post-World War Two reconstruction, the demands for a more egalitarian society will be strong. We should be wary about measures that end up diminishing our ability to create wealth – thus impoverishing us all – but it would be an unwise Government that sought to ignore the national sentiment.
However, before we deal with the post-Covid world, the Government must first chart a course to get us there. Given the task ahead of us, that course is likely to mean that some people will escape the lockdown quicker than others. When it comes to inequality, things will get worse before they get better. And if the Government attempts to shy away from that, it will either be taking unnecessary risks with our public health or unnecessarily prolonging the economic turmoil.
Before expanding on that point, let me summarise where I think we are. The Prime Minister will set out a cautious set of proposals tomorrow.
he Government’s strategy appears to be to ‘test, trace and isolate’ (although Ministers seem reluctant to refer to the all-important ‘isolate’ part) and that requires infections to be substantially reduced from the likely 20,000 a day level. The R number has to stay below 1 and, if we are to pursue the South Korean model, probably needs to be some way below 1 if we are to do this anytime soon. As a consequence, the lockdown will continue.
As I argued in my last column, the ‘Stay at Home’ message has worked so well that there is no great appetite from most of the public to recover many of our traditional freedoms. Any significant relaxation of the lockdown in future will need the public’s consent, and that is unlikely to be forthcoming whilst we are bombarded with messages to stay at home.
A more nuanced message is necessary in order to give the Government the freedom to relax restrictions in future. The evidence of the last few days – with newspapers apparently encouraged to proclaim a fundamental relaxation from Monday – has not been encouraging as to the Government’s ability to convey with discipline and consistency a nuanced message. It must do better in future and resist the temptation to announce good news prematurely.
Notwithstanding the communication failures, the cautious, step-by-step approach taken by the Government is sensible. Some of the lockdown measures have been crucial in reducing infections, others have been irrelevant. What the Government cannot be sure about is which ones are which.
There appears to be clear evidence that outdoor transmission is very rare, so that will mean that some of the restrictions will be lifted. The broad principle, it would seem to me, is that, as long as you socially distance, there is no need for any other coronavirus restrictions to apply. Good news for walkers, golfers and anglers, I would have thought. Not yet good news for cricketers, sadly.
There are other restrictions where it is harder to judge. The evidence shows that younger children are highly unlikely to suffer badly from the disease, nor does it appear very likely that they transmit to adults. The closure of schools has been detrimental to economic, societal and educational prospects of the country and their re-opening is essential if we want the economy to get moving.
It looks likely that schools won’t re-open until June and, even then, only gradually. The gradual re-opening is sensible, giving the Government the opportunity to test, learn and adapt. This will help ensure that we keep control of the virus and ensure that we maintain the confidence of parents and teachers.
My concern is that if we begin this process in June, even if everything goes smoothly and it turns out that closing schools is broadly irrelevant to the spread of the disease, many pupils won’t get back into school until September.
Instead, we should pilot the partial re-opening of primary schools, combined with extensive testing of parents and teachers. Choose a geographical area where the virus is not prevalent, as well as some areas where the R number is lower than the national average. Allow pupils back and monitor closely. If, as seems likely, we don’t see a noticeable increase in infections, we can move more quickly in the rest of the country in June.
There are probably other activities where geographical distinctions could and should allow the rules to vary. Initially, this might be for piloting purposes but, at a later stage, we may need to maintain or re-impose a lockdown in those areas where the infection rate is dangerously high whilst other parts of the country as granted additional freedoms.
Some will say that this leads to a complicated message or that it is unfair to apply different approaches in different areas. But if the pace of easing the lockdown is determined by the pace of the slowest, this is going to be an even more drawn-out process. Better to allow some to escape the lockdown than none.
There will also be complaints about fairness if we allow some sectors to return to the new normal, aided by access to extensive testing. One obvious example is professional sport, played behind closed doors. But this would be a boost to morale and, if we begin our preparations now, something that could be up and running within a few weeks.
Further down the line, if we have a reliable antibodies test, those with an immunity certificate could be allowed to live a normal life. I have mentioned in a previous column that this would be divisive but it would not be right to prohibit those who are immune from engaging in activities that pose no threat to others.
And in any attempt to base restrictions on the risk to health, it is impossible to ignore the fact that there is a vast differential in the risk to life depending upon age and underlying health conditions. The likely strategy is based on suppressing the virus but if we find ourselves moving to the position of trying to live with it, rules will have to vary depending upon the risks to the individual.
Lifting the lockdown is likely to be messy and uneven. What you can do may be determined by where you live or whether you have had the disease. Some ‘worthy’ activities will remain prohibited, some ‘frivolous’ ones will be allowed. If the evidence requires it, some relaxations will need to be reversed. Much of this will offend people’s sense of fairness.
We could, of course, duck some of these challenges and treat everyone much the same. That was the right course earlier in the crisis but, as we move to the next stage, treating everyone equally will stand in the way of taking the first small steps to recovery. Fairness matters – but returning to normality quickly and safely matters more.