OK, time to take stock.  Covid-19 cases are rising again.  Where should we go from here?  Plenty of others will use the statistics to construct arguments for preferred courses of action.  I intend instead to focus on some big, simple and mostly unpalatable truths.  

The tiered restrictions will likely only slow the growth of the virus  

SAGE, our best-informed experts, believe that.  While they’ve hardly given a great account of themselves so far in this crisis, we have no reason to doubt the judgement of Chris Whitty, Chief Medical Officer, and Patrick Vallance, Chief Scientific Adviser, on this, which goes to their area of expertise.  

This seems to have been the conclusion of the Belfast and Cardiff administrations, who have both introduced stricter lockdowns.  Scotland is considering a similar move.  They’re not doing that for fun.

So we should expect the present government approach in England will fail.  

A lockdown or circuit breaker isn’t going to achieve anything in the long term unless there is a better system in place once the lockdown or circuit breaker is over

Unless the virus is eradicated, measures that proved inadequate last time will prove inadequate again.  No one is proposing a circuit breaker or lockdown long enough to eradicate the virus.  Its advocates of need to explain what they would do with the time so expensively bought – and how.  They are notably hazy about this.  Labour have stated that they would use the time to improve track and trace, but this isn’t an either/or.  Track and trace needs to be improved anyway, with or without a circuit breaker.

Some advocates may think we should simply go in and out of lockdown indefinitely, playing cat and mouse with the virus (“Whack-A-Mole” as the Prime Minister once described it).  If so, they should be prepared to tot up the expected costs and the time period over which they anticipate needing to do this.  So far, they haven’t.

But not having a lockdown or circuit breaker isn’t an answer either: case numbers will simply get worse quicker

This rather obvious point is skated over by those opposing a circuit breaker.  What do they propose to do instead?  If the answer is “nothing”, they need to accept that a lot more people will die and a lot more people are going to suffer badly as a result of the unchecked spread of the virus. More cases lead in due course to more hospitalisations which in turn lead in due course to more deaths.  This also risks the hospitals being overwhelmed.  

Arguing anything else is wishful thinking, coming from those who thought the government had overreacted in March, saw Covid-19 edging towards extinction in June and were not worried about the uptick of cases at the beginning of September.

All polling indicates that the public are still by and large putting public health ahead of economics.   Fewer than one in seven think the current restrictions go too far.  If you think that order is wrong, you need to be making your case far more effectively than you have so far.

Anyway, getting the economy right and getting the response to the virus right are not opposed aims – the public won’t come out if they don’t feel safe

The public are independent agents and form their own view of their own safety.  Well before the government put Britain into lockdown on 23 March, the public had stopped travelling to work

While some will undoubtedly be cavalier about such matters, especially if encouraged by the government (as US Republican election rallies show), others will not.  Those many others are needed if the economy is going to be firing on all cylinders.  It’s sometimes noted in marketing that women make all the decisions and the old have all the money.  The latter will be disproportionately cautious.  They’re preparing to hunker down again.  They’re only going to be tempted back out when they think it’s safe enough.

So the question for everyone, whatever measures you support, is: how do you get enough people to feel safe enough?

A vaccine is our best hope but that’s probably still a little way off

The signs look promising for a vaccine – at some point.  It is unlikely to be 100% effective but it doesn’t need to be to bring this disease back under reasonable control, at least to allow us to get back to our ordinary lives.  But we can’t expect a vaccine to be widely available until next spring at the earliest.  And while we can hope for the best, we should prepare for the worst and assume that a vaccine might not be available for quite a while after that.

Summary

All current approaches seem reactive and focused only on the next few weeks.  No government anywhere in the UK (and few elsewhere in the world, to be fair) seems to have any kind of long term plan for living with Covid-19.

The public is well aware that things are pretty awful, that the choices are all dismal.  It has consistently shown more maturity about the challenges government face than the commentariat has, to the point of being too forgiving of their failures.  Politicians need to start talking to the public not of short term tactics but of their long term strategy – not just for their health but for the economy too.  First, however, they need to agree on one.  So far, it seems, they have not.

Alastair Meeks



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