The economy can’t survive 18 months in lockdown. The Government needs an exit strategy and fast
There are unknown unknowns, and then there are known unknowns, as Donald Rumsfeld, the American politician, so beautifully put it. It’s silly to blame governments for the former, but they cannot be let off the hook for the latter.
The threat of a pandemic has long been one of the most documented risks facing humanity, with endless scholarly papers and a campaign from Bill Gates. It was the quintessential known unknown – we couldn’t predict its exact shape, timing or virulence, but knew one would happen. And yet, scandalously, almost no government anywhere did anything to prepare.
Every country should have tooled up during the 2000s and 2010s, especially after the Sars, Swine flu, Ebola, Mers and Zika epidemics. Instead, despite the reassessment of global risk after 9/11 and the financial crisis, politicians in rich countries continued to cling to the deranged groupthink that everything was different now, that we had somehow vanquished infectious disease.
The dereliction of duty was scandalous: the entirety of our public health policies is unfit for purpose, with our inability to handle pandemics going hand in hand with declining rates of vaccination and the looming calamity of antibiotic resistance. All of that will have to be reassessed when the present nightmare ends.
The first countries to realise they had to prepare for pandemics were the newly developed Asian economies, after they were hammered by Sars in 2003, Swine flu in 2009-2010 and Mers in 2015. As a result, Singapore and South Korea in particular have been remarkably efficient at containing the coronavirus. The West stuck its head in the sand, and is now reaping the catastrophic consequences. Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Theresa May: all failed, as did their counterparts in America, France, Germany, Italy and elsewhere.
Given that he inherited this state of total unpreparedness, Boris Johnson – and his team, including Dominic Cummings, who spent years in the wilderness warning about the need to take pandemics seriously – has performed as well as could be expected under conditions of immense stress, conflicting scientific advice, public scepticism and radical uncertainty.
Some decisions should have been reached earlier, but all governments make mistakes in the fog of war. The French and Germans have erred at least as often over the past couple of weeks, and the Americans have performed unambiguously worse. There are now encouraging signs the British Government is starting to lead the global fightback, especially when it comes to the economic response and identifying those who have had the disease and are now immune to it.
In the short term, however, the situation remains desperate. Deaths are rocketing; the NHS is expected to come under maximum stress in two to three weeks’ time. The immediate priority remains to flatten the curve by imposing an ever-stricter form of social isolation, buying time to build NHS capacity by adapting factories to produce ventilators and increasing the number of beds and personnel.
The Government must also continue to roll out its economic plans: a lot more companies need to become eligible for loans and the self-employed need to be given the same assistance as the employed. Thousands of firms are going bankrupt, and there has been an explosion in unemployment: 477,000 people have applied for universal credit in just nine days. At least a million people have lost their jobs already, with a lot more to come. The economic shock is already the worst in living memory.
It would therefore be calamitous on every level to lock down the country for 12-18 months, as some believe necessary. The economy would collapse, losing the ability to rebound. Millions of people will be robbed of skills, networks and relevance, and temporary interventions could become permanent, ruining our competitiveness and necessitating massive tax increases. Children wouldn’t be educated, families wouldn’t form, hundreds of thousands would suffer extreme depression, the political system would face meltdown: the consequences would be appalling.
Until a vaccine is ready – and that is another area where the state must spend billions and drastically upend the rules – the Government needs to pursue a three-pronged strategy to allow the reopening of the economy and society while simultaneously minimising deaths. There needs to be an unprecedented programme of testing, contact tracing and protection. Rishi Sunak should once again spend whatever it takes: even £20 billion would be peanuts when compared with the economic and social price of keeping the country in lockdown.
First, tests: even more needs to happen. We should be ordering ten times more antibody tests and tens of millions of normal tests, too. Paul Romer, an American Nobel prize-winner, believes that the public should be tested weekly and healthcare workers daily, regardless of cost, using tests that deliver the quickest possible answer. Testing should be like drinking one’s daily coffee. This would allow accurate isolation, permit those who have developed antibodies to go back to work, and encourage the gradual reopening of the economy. A war-style effort is needed to deliver this as soon as humanly possible.
Second, contact tracing: use technology such as mobile phones to help work out who has had contact with an infected person. This is already happening in Israel. It is horrible for civil liberties, but less so than locking everybody up in their homes, and it allows targeted isolation.
Third, protection: this starts with healthcare workers, but a lot more people might be able to go back to work if they were protected adequately. Supermarket employees, delivery drivers and others should be given the best equipment, regardless of cost. Gloves, masks and other protective clothing could temporarily become de rigueur on public transport. The Government should order tens of millions of items, with new production facilities launched.
Over the next few days, Britain’s health and economic crisis will intensify. Johnson was right to order a lockdown, but now is also the time to start working on an exit strategy, with early summer the target. It’s an extraordinarily tall order: can he save more lives and eradicate the disease, while also rescuing an imploding economy and society?