We seem to be reaching the stage of the Covid-19 crisis when weighing up the economic and social costs of the counter-measures is no longer a bloodless faux pas.
According to the Daily Telegraph, ministers are currently assessing the potential mortality implications of an anticipated economic slump of 14 per cent, whilst the World Trade Organisation predict that global growth in 2020 could fall by a third.
Whilst the calculated case for the lockdown remains robust (as Sam Bowman sets out here) such debates will doubtless strengthen the convictions of those who have argued from the start that the Government was wrong to abandon its initial, morel liberal approach.
But the mere fact that we’re discussing this now doesn’t bolster their argument. Whilst there has been disagreement between ministers over the length and extent of lockdown – driven, as in the row over airports, by the different priorities of different departments – it has surely never been a widespread view that full-strength restrictions could continue indefinitely.
Rather the purpose of lockdown was to prevent the NHS being overwhelmed whilst giving the Government time to find more practical long-term solutions.
In Britain, this most obviously meant rapidly expanding “surge critical care bed capacity”. Doing so raises the red line in this famous chart from the Imperial College paper, meaning that in the event of a rise in infections after lockdown is eased the Health Service will be in a much better position to cope.
Source: Imperial College COVID-19 Response Team paper, page 8.
A quick look at other countries finds a similar story: easing lockdown goes hand-in-hand with increasing the state’s capacity to adopt a less sweeping approach. In Germany, a country being held up as the gold standard on testing, this still means “a massive expansion of laboratory capacities” to make a trace-and-track approach practical, according to local reports. In a similar vein, the Dutch are still developing the apps they think they’ll need to actually make use of the data brought in through a more comprehensive testing regime.
It also means testing for problems at the governmental level. For example, it has been suggested that Germany’s federal model may be an obstacle to a coordinated national response (as we have already found with devolution) compared to more centralised countries such as France, whose ‘Bonapartist’ approach allowed it to impose a sweeping lockdown very quickly.
There is a difference between controlled regional variation in easing restrictions, such as Italy is reportedly considering, and uncontrolled variation arising from different jurisdictions doing their own thing. Reaching the necessary agreements to avoid the latter likewise takes time.
Sweden remains the great outlier which could yet, perhaps, make a solid case for the liberal approach. But even then, the right approach will vary from country to country. The question of whether or not lockdown is necessary hinges on whether or not the state in question was equipped and ready to absorb the full force of the pandemic without buying itself time.
Unless you think the patient counts plotted on the above graph are wrong by something like a factor of ten – or that the volume of excess deaths implied by the gulf between those and the red capacity line is something the Government could or should accept – then Britain wasn’t.
Yet it remains true that full lockdown is not sustainable in the long term, which is why governments around the world are now in a race to get their states equipped to handle ending it before the costs of maintaining it grow unacceptably high.
However, this isn’t just about a huge expansion of “surge critical care bed capacity”, however necessary that is. In order to prevent health services getting overwhelmed and millions of people dying, any ‘exit strategy’ is going to involve some combination of ongoing intermittent lockdown, extraordinary levels of mass surveillance, and an unprecedented and extremely intrusive universal testing regime. Hence the measures being explored in Holland and Germany.
Ezra Klein sums up the various proposals at Vox, but the short version is that we return to the containment phase (what Harvard’s paper calls ‘Mobilise and Transition’) for an indefinite period. The demands this will make on the Government and the state will be immense, and lockdown was almost certainly the only way to buy ourselves the time to get there.