Perhaps Boris Johnson’s new plan will succeed. Maybe factories and building sites will stay open, plus the retail and hospitality sectors, as well as universities and (crucially) schools. Perhaps the move back from offices to schools will help keep Coronavirus on public transport under control. If so, the firewall that Ministers want to build between work and home will stand.
In both, there is to be a new stress on compulsion. At work, this will largely be limited to retail and hospitality, where the Government’s guidelines will become legal obligations, and the requirement to wear face masks will be extended. At home, in family life and in leisure time, there is the rule of six, smaller weddings, restricted sports events, 10pm curfew for pubs.
All this will be enabled and enforced by Covid marshalls, higher fines and penalties, and not only the police but (the Prime Minister hinted) the army – and big lockdowns that cover groups of local authority areas. As we say, maybe this plan will work, but we doubt it. The most likely course ahead is a patchy schools’ service, which will drag parents away from work, plus a further clampdown on first hospitality and then retail.
Johnson suggested as much yesterday: “we reserve the right to deploy greater fire power, with significantly greater restrictions”, he told the Commons. And although the plan’s outline is clear, its details are contested. In that respect, we are where we were before: the Department of Health stresses tackling the virus, the Treasury supporting the economy.
Rishi Sunak appears to have staved off a more extensive crackdown on hospitality – for the moment, anyway – but the Government’s internal haggling and bargaining points to an uncomfortable truth. The clampdown seems too extensive to satisfy a growing lobby within the Conservative Parliamentary Party, but not extensive enough to satisfy a significant chunk of the Government’s scientific advisers.
So there is a danger that it will fall between two stools, and be revised soon anyway. In weighing where we are, it would be easy to vanish down the rabbit hole of detail (asking why, for example, it is considered safe to drink in pubs and drink in restaurants before 10pm but not afterwards). Instead, we should stand back from yesterday’s change of tack, and think about the big picture.
When Covid-19 first gathered pace, we were told that a lockdown was necessary to save the NHS. That is a clear goal – and an understandable one, since the public would not have tolerated TV pictures of overwhelmed hospitals, with ambulances incapable of discharging patients and others unable to get treatment at all, so dying at home without any palliative care.
After the original lockdown was eased, the emphasis shifted from “save the NHS” to “control the virus”. The Prime Minister said yesterday that we should “safeguard the NHS”, but it wasn’t clear if the Government believes the rising caseload is a serious threat to it. It appears that Ministers and their advisers are aiming, rather, to suppress the virus altogether.
That raises obvious questions about trade-offs – between driving down the virus and other healthcare objectives, and between lives and livelihoods: that’s to say, the wider workings of the economy which produces the growth, jobs and wealth without which the NHS would be unable to function in the first place. We asked in May for the Government to publish a worst-case scenario for the service, and if it there is one we haven’t seen it.
Nor is it clear what those healthcare gains and losses have been so far. Obviously, trying to calculate them is like trying to take a still photo of a moving person, but the effort must surely be made. In its absence, opinion among Ministers and backbenchers is dividing, with a growing number – we can’t be sure of what it is – favouring a stress on voluntarism rather than compulsion: the Sweden option.
We believe that a choice between Sweden and lockdowns is a false one, for a simple reason. Why would we model our response on the country with the eleventh highest number of deaths per head (Sweden) – only three places behind the UK – rather than one with the forty-fourth (Germany)? We concede at once that these international comparisons are fraught with problems.
But that’s an issue for those who favour a Swedish-syle approach as much as those who support a German one. In any event, as a country with the second largest economy in Europe, we are more easily considered alongside the country with the first – another, furthermore, with a relatively large population. The fundamental difference between Sweden and Germany is the stress on testing.
The Government has handled some aspects of Covid-19 well (building the Nightingales) and some badly (failing to protect care homes). Johnson will be consoled this morning by the fact that, if the initial polls are right, elite opinion on the Right may lean towards Sweden but the voters still support lockdown – though a growing and articulate minority do not, and exaggerated public fear of the extent of the virus brings problems in its wake,
Undoubtedly, however, Government communications have been more than a bit of a shambles – ever since, significantly, Ministers moved off the message of protecting the NHS. In July, the Prime Minister was hoping for “a more significant return to normality from November…possibly in time for Christmas”. Instead, we have a significant move from normality in September, which is set to last for six months.
We appreciate that all governments have made mistakes in handling the developing unknown of the virus, here and abroad. But, frankly, too much hope has been invested in vaccines; too little stress has been placed on living with the virus; too much has been allowed to “the science” (with the latest dubious stress from the chief scientists on worst-case scenarios) – and too much of the debate has swung between two unworkable extremes.
Big lockdowns of whole cities or metropolitan areas, which could well end up as a national one in effect, are not a solution, since they bring with them harmful outcomes and have an unclear objective. Mass voluntarism might well be less damaging, but Sweden’s experience suggests it would bring higher death numbers with it – along with voter resistance, openings for Keir Starmer, and the canard that “the Tories don’t care about saving lives”.
Instead, Johnson needs to set clear testing targets, stick to them build on progress made, and stay on piste. We are well aware of the problems. The UK doen’t have the laboratory capacity it needs, so scaling it up takes time. Testing finds more cases, thus feeding public alarm. There are false positives (and negatives). Some people will need tests won’t take them. Others who take them don’t need them – or at any rate, need them less than, say, teachers.
Care homes have consumed a lot of the tests; the return of schools has had an impact; an earlier-than-expected upswing in cases has caught the authorities out. Furthermore, we still await a workable NHS app, our health system is over-centralised, and effective tracing remains a work in progress. But more tests, quick tracing, quarantine and mini-shutdowns if necessary (not the closure of whole cities and metropolitan areas) are the best-in-class solution.
It is one that would minimise the debate about trade-offs, since the economy would be able to return to nearer normal. If it isn’t delivered, watch for pressure on the Chancellor for more furlough, more subsidies, more loans, and a shorter spending review – with higher taxes and lower spending coming later down the line. And for the options to harden to two flawed extremes.