Keir Starmer is cranking up the pressure. Last time round, Labour voted for lockdown. Today, Labour is poised to abstain on tiers. The party has a cover story about the hospitality sector and tiering effects, but it is not the point: its leader wants to distance Labour from the Government’s policy. Boris Johnson is offering a further compensation package, but this is unlikely to change Starmer’s intent.
Nonethless, the tiering plan will pass. There are 364 Conservative MPs, and the majority of them will support it in the lobbies this evening. Which gives troubled backbenchers a certain freedom, since they knows that, if they vote otherwise, England won’t be thrown into chaos, leaving it with no legal framework within which to contain Covid.
So how should they vote? There is good news and bad news. The good news is that Boris Johnson no longer plans to hold another vote on the present tiering at Eastertime or thereabouts. He has written to Tory MPs saying that the regulations which govern it will expire on February 3.
That seems a reasonable compromise as far as Parliamentary scutiny is concerned. For by then, we will have evidence of the degree to which the tiering has continued to lower Covid-19 rates. Raghib Ali has argued on this site that this was happening before the present lockdown under the previous tiers, as have others.
The bad news is that the Government’s published cost-benefit analysis contains no costs and so calculates no benefits (in a nutshell). On costs, it says simply that “it is not possible to know…what path the economy would take if restrictions in place were not sufficient to prevent exponential growth or in the absence of restrictions entirely”.
The analysis simply cites figures from the Office for Budget Responsibility already published. Which might be fair enough – were it not reported in today’s Times that “the government has drawn up a secret dossier detailing the impact of coronavirus on the economy, with a dozen sectors rated “red” and facing significant job cuts and revenue losses.
Furthermore, the Government has already issued a document estimates of costs and benefits during this pandemic, at least in healthcare rather than monetary terms. The Department of Health set out “scenarios” in a publication during the summer.
“The estimates represent a point in time, using evidence from the initial months of the pandemic to model scenarios going forwards,” its report, Direct and Indirect Impacts of Covid-19 on Excess Deaths and Morbidity, said (not “predictions”, please note).
It concluded that “the direct Covid-19 deaths account for the majority of all excess deaths•However, when morbidity is taken into account, the estimates for the health impacts from a lockdown and lockdown induced recession are greater in terms of QALYs [quality-adjusted life years] than the direct Covid-19 deaths”.
Starmer may deploy our familiar companion, the Humble Address, to try and put the “secret dossier” – including a “Covid-19 sectoral impacts dashboard” – into the public domain. The Government claims that “the document referred to contains publicly available information”.
At any rate, our columnist Neil O’Brien worried in his column on this site earlier this week that “the difficulty [with a cost-benefit analysis] is knowing what the counterfactual should be“. The Government offers a solution to this problem in its official publication: namely, simply to assume the worst.
“Against an alternative of allowing the NHS to be overwhelmed, the introduction of the tiering measures delivers very high health benefits across three of the four categories of health impact (with the fourth being unclear),” it says. But tiering measures at what level, and of what kind? – one of the main questions MPs must ponder today.
Answer comes there none, and the totality of the evidence, including the long drawn-out saga of when a Treasury estimate is or isn’t a forecast, suggests that the Government believes Conservative MPs can’t be trusted to draw sensible conclusions if all the available evidence is published.
To borrow an old phrase of David Cameron’s, his successor is “treating people like fools” – which is unlikely to improve the already fragile relations between Downing Street and Tory backbenchers. And if that’s what Ministers think of them, why should voters do otherwise? If Tory backbenchers now feel like firing a shot across the Government’s bows this afternoon, we can scarcely blame them.