Monday 11 May 2020

Daddy, what did you do in Great Covid Pandemic?

There will in time be a Public Inquiry into Britain’s handling of the Covid epidemic. It will hear from scientists and politicians, but it will also hear from other people. There may be an eminent judge chairing the inquiry, but there will also metaphorically be a jury of ordinary people with no particular knowledge. We will all evaluate the performance of our country and its Government at future elections.

One of the central questions that the inquiry will face will be about lockdown. Was this the right strategy? In the future when we know how many people in Britain were infected with Covid and how many died, and when we know this about other countries too, we will be able to make valid comparisons. But we can’t do that today, because we don’t have all the data.  It may be possible afterwards to judge that lockdown should have been introduced earlier or eased later. It may even be possible to state that lockdown saved few lives or alternatively that it prevented a catastrophic loss of life. But right now, we don’t know the answer.

It is natural that we compare the performance of Britain with that of other countries. But no country is exactly alike, there are different ways of counting Covid deaths and anyway the illness is continuing. Some countries have been more fortunate because of their geography, their population density or their previous experience of Coronavirus type illnesses. Some countries have better healthcare than we do, some have worse. We should rejoice in saved lives everywhere, and regret them too, but it is not a competition.

With hindsight it is already clear that we should have prevented travel from abroad much earlier. The fewer ill people who arrived in Britain the fewer who could infect others. It was senseless that when Wuhan and Milan introduced their lockdowns people could still fly from there to Britain and get off the plane with no checks and no quarantine whatsoever. The very same people who would have been locked down in Wuhan and Milan were free to go anywhere in Britain. 

If it made sense for British people to be kept at home, it logically made sense for the Chinese and Italians to be kept at home in Italy and China and prevented from going to Britain. Exceptions might have been sensibly made for British citizens so long as they were kept in quarantine on arrival.

But if we accept this logic then we implicitly accept that lockdown was necessary. If you don’t think that lockdown has any point, then you should allow free travel from everywhere including places where Covid is increasing.  

Could we have gone down the Swedish route? It may turn out that it would have worked as well if not better than the route we did take. But it’s still too early to judge. Sweden has remained more open than Britain, but Sweden is also a very different society. People there tend to be rule followers in a way that British people are not. But it was never an option in Britain anyway because public opinion and the media demanded lockdown and would have blamed the Government for every single death that occurred in its absence. Imagine the hysterical newspaper headlines as the death toll rose. You don’t have to imagine just look back at the media coverage over PPE and ventilators. The Government might have been able to introduce lockdown a few days earlier, but they certainly could not have left it any later. People would have stayed at home whatever the Government said.

What about lifting lockdown. The future inquiry will look at this too. In the future we will know more about the economic cost of the measures the Government has taken. If the economy bounces back quickly, we will judge in one way if we have a long depression we will judge in another way.

The problem is that the economic effect of Covid is uncertain. Will Covid die out in the summer? Will it return for a second wave in the Autumn? Will it become more virulent or will it become milder? No one knows for certain though lots of people have opinions.

The problem we have is that even if the Government said everyone must go back to work and all children must go to school, most people would refuse. I think the level of fear is rather irrational. In the worst-case scenario, the risk for many of us is very small. But this is not how public opinion sees it.

It would make sense if schools opened right now. Very few children have died from Covid and scientists think it unlikely they infect others. Young teachers under forty are also very unlikely to die. It would be possible therefore for some teachers to return to work to teach some children. But if a child did die there would be hysterical media coverage and if a teacher died it would be worse. Anyway, most parents would refuse to send their children to school at the moment and most teachers would refuse to teach.

Media hysteria and the highlighting of unusual cases of young people dying has created a misunderstanding of the risks involved and an unwarranted fear of them.

We are going to have to learn to live with risk. Even if somehow, we could achieve zero cases of Covid in the UK we could only maintain it by banning all travel from the UK to and from anywhere else. The Covid endgame is therefore either that we have a vaccine, or that we have a cure or that sufficient numbers of the population develop immunity to Covid that the likelihood of anyone else getting the disease vanishes. Unless we wish to stay indoors forever until there is no more money and no more food, we are going to have to expose ourselves to the chance of becoming infected. A vaccine or a cure may take years to develop or may turn out to be impossible.

It makes sense that we all continue to take the precautions that Boris described in his address to the country, but we are not all going to be able to go around dressed as if for a nuclear accident and continue doing this for months and perhaps years. To do so would be unrealistic and frankly unnecessary.

Public opinion must change and the only way to do it is for the Government to gradually cease paying the wages of those who are at home. We must go out to work in order to earn our money. We take slight risks when we drive our cars. We are going to have to do so again with regard to an illness which at worst might kill one in a hundred people of working age. The risks are much higher for the elderly, but very low indeed for the young. 

The future Public Inquiry must address whether it really makes sense for the devolved parts of Britain to have separate polices during a national emergency. It is untenable that the Treasury pays the wages of Scots and bails out Scottish businesses while English people go to work and Scots don't. Everyone in Britain is benefiting from the Chancellor keeping us going financially. There needs to be a shared risk too. It is as if only English soldiers took part in D Day because a previous incarnation of Nicola Sturgeon thought it was too dangerous for Scots to take part. 

Daddy, what did you do in Great Covid Pandemic?  

Stay at home cannot be the message forever for a very simple reason. Nearly every child is the result of people who didn’t know each other meeting and breaking the rules of social distancing. We cannot remain two metres away much longer or there won’t be a future for us to save.