As the coronavirus spreads, Hancock is endangered by twin perils – complacency and panic

Suppose neither the best nor the worst.  Imagine for a moment that the coronavirus turns out to have neither a high infection rate nor a high death rate – nor a low rate of either.  But is somewhere in the middle.

Which raises the question of what these rates actually are, to which the answer can only be that no-one knows for sure.  In today’s Daily Telegraph, Jeremy Warner quotes estimates from China of death rates to date varying from 0.8 per cent to two per cent.

He then offers an “extraordinarly unlikely” upper estimate of five million deaths in Britain – “a level of mortality that would change the face of the nation forever”.

But let us stick to believing that the death rate will be nothing remotely as impactful, but that the virus none the less causes severe disruption – accentuated by the rumour factory that is social media, conspiracy theory, anti-politics and snowflakery or rather, if one takes a less severe view, by our culture’s lack of exposure to an event of this kind.  There will be four main baskets of public consequences.

The first will be supply chain disruption, which indeed is already happening.  The Asian stock market is having its worst week since 2011.  Much of China’s economy has been in lockdown, and one estimate lops 1.5 per cent off its growth rate in the first quarter of this year.  Italy will surely tip into recession: it grew last year by only 0.2 per cent.  Germany’s condition is not much better.  The coronavirus will deepen the Eurozone’s problems.

Both it and other economies may bounce back, but there will be disruption to components, goods, and possibly food.  Not to mention ports, airports and travel.  The holiday trade abroad will be hit.

There is Brexit debate about No Deal – as Boris Johnson now doesn’t want us to call it.  The coronavirus has the capacity to have the effect of No Deal on steroids.  Incidentally, the virus may provoke an EU-wide response during transition, which would provoke a range of reactions in Britain.

Whatever happens, there is now likely to be a Coronavirus Budget – in other words, one more expansionary than would otherwise be the case.  If Boris Johnson hankers after tearing up the present fiscal rules, he may have the cover to move.

Second, there is quarantine.  This ranges from a government-led shutdown of public activity, at one end of the range, to more schools, firms and other bodies closing spontaneously, at the other.  Matt Hancock says that closures of the first are “a local decision based on various factors, including professional advice”.  Some have already shut down.

Quarantine will have knock-on effects on productivity, shopping, exams, interaction with neighbours and home visits – not least to elderly and isolated people who rely on such visits, community nurses, social workers and so on.  There are conceivable effects on rubbish collection.

As for sport, cancellations are already here: Italy’s Six Nations game against Ireland has been called off.  The F.A.Cup Final might end up having to be played behind closed doors – as a Europa League game is already set to be.  Concerts, theatre, cinema, festivals and cultural events will be affected.

Our third basket is government – and, in particular, the NHS.  Government activity became a Narnian winter during last year’s Brexit drama: it so consumed Westminster and Whitehall that almost nothing else moved.  The coronavirus has the potential to do the same.  Not to mention dominating the media for weeks and perhaps months to come.

A shutdown of government would be no bad thing, small statists and libertarians may think.  Be careful what you wish for.  The NHS is testing people who are returning from badly affected countries, and there is an isolation facility at Heathrow (though not yet at other airports).  But the health service plainly wouldn’t have the capacity to handle a worst case scenario and would struggle with a medium case one.  For example, there is limited capability for testing.

That means clogged surgeries and cancelled operations at best.  The Government is presently relying on self-isolation, the use of 111 and pods at hospitals.  However, some people will feel, rightly or wrongly, that they can’t depend on advice over the phone.  And the use and abuse of A & E as an alternative to GP appointments is well established.  One cannot be sure that the system will cope.  Which would have a knock-on effect of the virus spreading further.

Finally, borders.  We’ve already touched on ports, airports, travel – and, by extension, business abroad.  A rise in the number of migrant boats off Kent is conceivable.  As is a spike in racist attacks.

ConservativeHome is striving, as it peers into the fog of Coronavirus uncertainty, to strike the right balance between the freedom to write more or less whatever we like, and the responsibility not to get the consequences of the virus out of proportion.  After all, not a single person in the country has yet died from it.  To give a sense of perspective, seasonal flu kills 600 people each year here in Britain.

If we struggle, one can only imagine the current state of play at the Department of Health, and the condition of the energetic, gregarious, capable Matt Hancock, whose task it is to oversee the Government’s “contain, delay, research and mitigate” strategy.  How can he escape being shipwrecked by those twin perils – complacency and panic?

Under what conditions, for example, would he take the fateful decision to advise the closure of schools?  When should he put the rockets under a public information campaign?  There is political consensus on the Government’s handling of the coronavirus to date. That may not last.  Talking of consequences: could they knock Donald Trump’s re-election bid sideways?

There is an upside to the virus – at least for online banking; for internet activity of all kinds; for the manufacturers of video games; for firms who make surgical masks, wipes and gloves; for single use plastics; for scientists looking for funds for vaccines, for domestic tourism.  Traffic queues will ease if there are shutdowns.  And any slowdown will be just fine and dandy for carbon emissions and, maybe, for house prices.

Any mass shutdown will bring ambiguities with it.  Families thrown more closely together – because children can’t go to school, or parents can’t get to work, or childcare isn’t there for the moment – may flourish as they rediscover leisure and conversation.  Or they may kick their heels with enforced boredom, and squabble over clean towels and sheets – and what to do with the rubbish.  Tipping could rise.

Pandemics produce weird cultural outgrowths – booms in self-flagellatory ascetic movements, as people turn to God; or, at the other end of the scale, orgiastic sex cults, as they fly for comfort amidst grief and death.  But remember: this is not yet a pandemic.  And may never become one.

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