To ease or not to ease? Small wonder the Government has got itself into such a mess in answering this question. Having been widely, and rightly, condemned for a slow and inadequate response to the pandemic, ministers are doubly shy of lifting the restrictions for fear of acting prematurely, getting it wrong again, and incubating a second wave.
They have some reason to worry. The rate of new infections still seems relatively high compared to much of the rest of Europe, while the shambles of the UK’s “test, trace and isolate” initiative gives little confidence that social distancing measures can be safely abandoned without more deaths.
The late initial response was instructed by economic and libertarian concerns, yet we seem to have ended up with the worst of all worlds – the highest per capita death rate of any major economy, the most extreme form of continuing lockdown, and according to the latest OECD assessment, the biggest economic hit.
The damage to reputation has been immeasurable. “What has become of your country?” one foreign diplomat asked me the other day. “We see only a ship of fools, and a plague ship at that.”
Lack of judgment and leadership is as much in evidence coming out of the lockdown as it was going in. Having perhaps put too much emphasis on the economy at the start of the outbreak, we now seem to be making the opposite mistake. In our efforts to suppress the virus, we risk irreversible economic damage.
Permanent impoverishment is threatened if we persist for much longer with the current shutdown. Yet persist the Government does.
Premature lifting of the lockdown, it is argued, risks even greater economic damage down the line. Hmmm.
There are two aspects to this line of reasoning. One is that an even more economically devastating further lockdown would become necessary if there was a second wave. But this only makes sense if you think both that a second wave can be permanently avoided by aiming for eradication of the virus, and that alternatively if the measures were lifted and there was a fresh outbreak, policymakers would respond to it with another lockdown.
The reality is that a second wave is almost inevitable the moment the lockdown is fully lifted in any case. Whether now or later makes no odds. Until effective vaccines and treatments are discovered, the lockdowns cannot be lifted without some risk of reinfection. It follows that the economy cannot return to “normal” without this risk. At some stage the virus will return.
Is it viable for a big, open economy such as the UK to be kept in continued lockdown until there is a vaccine? The answer is obviously no.
The second line of argument is little more persuasive – that people are so fearful of the virus that their behaviour won’t change even when lockdown measures are lifted as long as infections and deaths remain relatively high. Ergo, you need virtually to eliminate the virus before the economy can recover.
I’m not so sure. We won’t know until we try, but even if partially true, for how much longer can we keep this up before there is no economy left to go back to? Risks have to be taken at some stage.
Even as a halfway house, transitional arrangement, the two metre rule provides no kind of solution. Schools, restaurants, bars, most retailers, and many workplaces cannot be viable as long it lasts. Time is running out.