The doves have won. That is the clear signal emerging from briefing about the Government’s review of the lockdown.
On timing, an announcement looks set to come earlier than we expected – before next week’s Friday Bank Holiday rather than afterwards.
On content, Britain should prepare for “the new normal”: that’s to say, a modest loosening of the shutdown at what might be called the lower end, with some outdoor retail providers, such as garden centres, opening, with smaller shops; and a possible tightening of it at the higher end, at locations where the number of people congregating is greater. So we may have a quarantine period for those arriving into the UK.
There will be strict social distancing at work; no immediate re-opening of schools; and no big events, such as sporting and cultural ones, for the forseeable future. There are differences of view among Government advisers about compulsory masks. It may also be that there will be regional lockdown variations – an intriguing prospect.
To spell it out plainly, the county will be in gridlock until a vaccine is available; or a workable antibody test comes, or Britain achieves herd immunity (which a lockdown of the kind the Government is planning will push back). This has momentous implications.
For those with secure jobs, mostly in the public sector; or for those furloughed; or at least for those in both categories who have gardens, whose children are at good schools, who have robust mental health, and who are strangers to domestic violence or abuse, it has been possible to experience this lockdown, with its gorgeous accompanying weather, as a kind of holiday from the rigours of life. This is a fool’s paradise.
Early June will mark roughly three months from the start of the economic contraction caused by the virus. Perhaps at that point – maybe a bit later – reality will kick in. Some of those furloughed will lose their jobs. Growth has already collapsed. Mass unemployment will return for the first time since the 1990s. The economic bills will soar as tax revenues vanish. This is a disaster for Rishi Sunak, as well as the rest of us.
Older and vulnerable people will be expected to self-isolate for the interim. For those without jobs or gardens or access to green space, or with mental health problems or terminal conditions or chaotic families, the prospects are grisly. The Chancellor will find himself forced to haul out a parade of bigger statist bazookas, in order to rescue the mass of the population, as he has already been compelled to do over loans for business and help for the self-employed.
War metaphors are widely deployed in writing about the Coronavirus. Here’s another. This prospect will be like a long defeat – with an invading, invisible enemy wreaking havoc. The social, economic and political wounds could scar us as irreversibly as did those of both world wars.
Now, Boris Johnson would say that we don’t necessarily need a vaccine, or solid antibody tests, or even herd immunity, to see the Coronavirus mugger off the premises. We can do by turning ourselves into South Korea.
This, evidently, has become the Government’s plan. The Prime Minister is as aware of all the above as you and we are, if not more. It was never likely that Britain would follow the road originally taken by Israel: in other words, a draconian suppression, possible for a while in that militarised society.
Nor was it ever going to persist in the route still followed by Sweden: a looser suppression of the kind set out in the Government’s own original playbook. The social and political imperative of keeping the NHS on its feet would never have allowed it. Neither voters nor Conservative MPs would have tolerated people dying “in their beds alone at home, some of dehydration and starvation alongside their pneumonia, with no palliative care of any kind”, as Sam Bowman has put it.
And so it is that, after three policy iterations, Ministers have gone Asian – looking to South Korea, the biggest Coronavirus success story so far, as an example to follow. But there is a problem.
On this site today, David Davis argues that the Government’s plans for scaling up testing and tracking won’t do if a South Korean settlement is truly Johnson’s aim. The former Brexit Secretary is having a good run with figures. His calculations about Britain’s death rates published this week in Reaction, have been widely followed up or reached independently elsewhere. Keir Starmer, with his eye to the main chance, raised those rates at Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday.
Furthermore, the Government has already been round this course once – with testing. The eventual inquiry into Ministers’ handling of the crisis will reach its own conclusions. But what appears to have happened is that the Government, having settled on mass testing, found that Public Health England couldn’t deliver it quickly enough.
So Matt Hancock called in the private sector and the army to reach the 100,000 end-of-April target that he announced earlier this month. (He was right, by the way, to do so, regardless of whether he hits or misses it, because the mere fact of setting it forced government and its partners to raise the number of tests spectacularly.)
Johnson and his team should be cut a lot of slack. Our death rates may well be roughly in the middle of the international range. Not until the virus has receded, and the statisticians have allowed for different demographics, population distribution and concentration, ethnic make-up, health service performances, household formation and a mass of other variables, will it be possible to reach a conclusion about the Government’s performance compared to it counterparts.
After all, in Germany – lauded as a European leader in tackling the virus – debate is currently raging among the politicians, and throughout the country, about the re-tightening of lockdown as its death numbers climb again.
Ministers have had their successes (Universal Credit, the furlough portal, creating a testing industry from scratch, helping to keep the NHS on an even keel) as well as their failures (the main loans scheme take-up, slow testing, the running problems with PPE – and strategic uncertainty, as a plan for dealing with conventional flu was first rolled out, only to be rolled back).
But if a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing well. If South Korea is to be the model – with its different social and cultural attitudes and outlook – then Ministers will need to scale up their test and track plans, as well as spell out their worst case scenarios for second and consequent waves, and when the NHS could cope with them, if at all.
This is not a pleasant holiday from ordinary life that will end this summer. It is a struggle for the duration, unless or until that vaccine turns up, with consequences we can only begin to imagine.