The new intake of Conservative MPs have been formed by their experience of grappling with Covid-19 – in both Parliamentary and constituency terms. Induction to normal Commons life hasn’t happened; the socialisation that comes with it hasn’t, either. Some have been and will still be shielding.
So, in that last case, have some of their colleagues from previous parliaments, who will likewise have had to deal with a mass of consequences in their seats. All return to the Commons today knowing that they have a big decision to make – one that will shape the debate that is now taking place about future levels of tax and spending.
It is as follows. Should they press a foot on the accelerator, and push for the opening-up of the economy, with no more nationwide lockdowns? Or should they let it hover above the brake, keeping the economy relatively closed-down, as they prepare to back such future shutdowns, mirroring the angst of virus-fearful constituents?
They could start looking for an answer by thinking back to the curtailment of normal Parliamentary proceedings at the end of March. Within two months, the number of Coronavirus cases seems to have climaxed – even discounting for the dubiousness of the data and changes in recording practice.
There are three daily peaks documented during the period from early April to early May, running at roughly 5000 cases each a day. By August 26, there were about a thousand. And with testing capacity now at about 300,000 people a day, a higher proportion of those with the virus are being tracked down, whether symptomatic or not.
New cases are almost certain to rise as winter sets in, as people mix less in the open air and more in confined spaces. But what counts most is not the number of cases but the number of deaths – and, given the long-term damage to health that Covid-19 can do, hospitalisations.
There were 3,563 of the latter recorded UK-wide on April 1, the highest total, which by August 19 had fallen to 109. The number of daily recorded deaths were at their highest on April 8 at 1,071. On August 27, that total dropped to… none at all.
Now it is overwhelmingly likely that, come winter, the number of hospitalisations and deaths will rise. But the story of the virus so far is of improving treatments, or declining lethality, or rising immunity – or a mix of all of these, despite the absence of a vaccine.
Crucially, the NHS is nowhere near being overwhelmed. As Raghib Ali, a healthcare academic who has also been on the Coronavirus front line, has written on this site, it is hard to see on current trends how a second wave would overwhelm it.
The original Government lockdown slogan was: stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives. It had a logic to it. The public would have risen up in horror after the broadcasting of Lombardy-type scenes in our hospitals – with people “gasping for air, clutching at their chests and at tubes pumping oxygen into their oxygen-starved lungs”.
That danger is remote at present. Lockdown has been easing since May: true, that relaxation has sometimes been a story of two steps forward, one step back – with the NHS app imbroglio, the summer failure to re-open schools, and muddle about masks – but there is no longer a trade-off between “saving the NHS and saving the economy”.
In one sense, the balance is indeed between weighing the risk to public health, by relaxing restrictions more swiftly, against the risk to the economy, by doing so more slowly – the classic lives v livelihoods debate. In another, the give-and-take calculation is not between the economy and health, but between different kinds of heath outcomes.
In May, we posed ten questions to the Prime Minister about the shutdown, one of which was to ask for the Government’s estimate of the non-Coronavirus health costs to date – in cancelled operations, impaired mental health, domestic and child abuse, cancer deaths and so on. Answers are still obscure.
But it isn’t obvious that the gains from attempting to extinguish the virus altogether are now worth the losses from those deaths, abuse, damage to mental health, and so on. So this is the time for Tory MPs and others to say so – and help to lead public opinion rather than follow it.
That means, in terms of opening-up the economy, switching state money and resources from paying people not to work to paying them to work and train. Gordon Brown overworked this approach with his tax credits but, within constraints, it makes sense.
After all, his idea was taken from a Conservative original – Family Income Supplement, later re-badged as Family Credit. Special help will be needed for those who have recently lost their jobs, and younger people seeking to enter a devastated jobs market. Stephen Crabb is urging that Universal Credit take some of the strain.
In terms of closing down Covid-19, leading public opinion means pressing for hand-washing, face-covering and social distancing to do the heavy lifting, and lobbying not only for the opening up of schools and universities, but for a more rapid loosening of crowd, conference, retail, entertainment and group restrictions.
At first glance, that looks a lot like a Sweden-style approach. However, it’s actually closer to Germany’s, because of the stress on mass testing. Germany is now tightening up its lockdowns having previously loosened them, but it is the ambition of its testing programme that has marked the country out.
And while international Coronavirus league tables are deceptive, Germany (42nd in terms of deaths per million) is a clearly better model than Sweden (eighth in deaths per million) – and more comparable to the UK. True, its healthcare model is different from ours. But then, so is Sweden’s. So how have we done in Britain?
In the words of three senior politicians, “building an infrastructure that has capacity to test more than 300,000 people per day should be rightly celebrated”. But they go on to say that the strategy must now be taken to its next level: “having the confidence to return to work…is now a must, but it can only be achieved by learning to live alongside the virus. Short of a safe vaccine, mass testing is the only way to realise this”.
This triple alliance consists of Tony Blair, William Hague and Jeremy Hunt – the last of whom, from the earliest days of the pandemic, has been alert to the success of mass testing and tracing in the Far East. In the event of a winter surge, the choice is shaping to be: mass lockdowns, even a further national one…or more effective test-and-trace.
There’s no doubt which MPs should press for. Short of a big uptick in deaths, testing and tracing must take the strain – not only to save livelihoods as well as lives, but to save lives as well as lives: those of people at risk from, for example, cancer or heart disease; and those whose lives are blighted by, say, ruined mental health or abuse.