On the one hand, the Government must strain to stop the collapse of the NHS beneath the weight of Coronavirus patients. In such an event, it would be very unlikely to survive.
On the other, it must strive to halt the collapse of the economy beneath a mass of bust incomes. In such an event, it would be very unlikely to survive either.
The events of the last few days have seen Ministers working to the get the balance right – all the while being, as we’ve said before, like a man shooting blindfold at a moving target with a gun that may not work.
Last Thursday, Neil Ferguson, of the Imperial College team from which the Government is taking some of its advice, gave evidence to the Science and Technology Select Committee.
He said that “perhaps in three weeks we will start flattening the curve” and that he was “reasonably confident” that the NHS will cope.
Not being a politician, Ferguson was more straightforward than a Minister would have been (try to find one who has said the same), and his words risked sparking a bit of a media and social bush fire.
For the more talk there is of danger easing, the more temptation there is to flout the lockdown. And the more people do so, the more likely it is that the peak of the Prime Minister’s sombrero isn’t squashed soon, but spikes later.
Hence, we suspect, Jenny Harries’ words yesterday. It’s important to understand what the Deputy Chief Medical Officer actually said – which was not that the lockdown will last for six months.
She said: “over time, probably over the next six months, we will have a three week review, we will see where we’re going, we need to keep that lid on, and then gradually we will be able to hopefully adjust some of social distancing measures, and gradually get us all back to normal.”
“So I think three weeks for review, two or three months to see whether we’ve really squashed it, but about three to six months ideally, and lots of uncertainty in that, but then to see at which point we can actually get back to normal, and it is plausible that it could go further than that, we just need to see how successful we’ve been.”
The sum of which suggests that, whatever the timing may be, the lockdown will be lifted gradually. But her main aim was obvious: to keep people practising the social distancing measures – thus squashing that sombrero soon.
For if this doesn’t happen, and the peak of pressure on the NHS comes later, the Government will face a terrible choice.
Which will be either to continue the present shutdown in full (or even intensify it), which would risk collapsing the economy altogether.
Or to ease (or even lift substantially) the lockdown, which would mean further waves of pressure on the NHS, which would risk a coup de grace being dealt to the chin of a tottering service.
The good news is that if the Imperial College team, who are at the pessimistic end of the spectrum (with an Oxford University team at the optimistic end), are now talking of a relatively early peak, that is suggestive.
If, and it’s a big if, they’re right, the worst will be over by May, assuming that the lockdown broadly holds – though it won’t feel as though that will be the case at all mid-April, as the NHS groans under maximum pressure.
At which point in late spring and early summer, much will depend, both in economic and social terms, on the progress of the virus abroad. On the degree to which it is then being felt in, for example, the United States.