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The Pale Horse. Politics in the shadow of Covid-19

April 16th, 2020

The death toll continues to mount. To date, at least, the government is having a spectacularly good pandemic, in political terms. Its popularity has hit heights only seen in the heyday of the first Labour government under Tony Blair. The Prime Minister has emerged from his harrowing illness to widespread genuine public affection. This government is having its honeymoon in a plague pit.

In one sense, this is very normal. Governments from Ireland to Italy have seen their poll ratings improve sharply as their publics unite in fear. The British government has been aided by domestic circumstances. The official Opposition have been almost entirely absent (they seem to prefer score-settling about exactly how anti-Semitic they are and which faction lost them the last-but-one election). The Lib Dems have gone one better by postponing their leadership election for a year, leaving them without anyone resembling a spokesperson. The Conservatives have been able to get their message out unchallenged.

Reality, however, is intruding.  For all the Prime Minister’s tiggerish enthusiasm, it is now apparent that Britain is doing badly in coping with the pandemic itself.  Britain continues to march along the same grim death path that Spain and Italy trod before it, with already nearly 13,000 cases of those who died in hospital with Covid-19. To put that in context, the Titanic sank 108 years ago this week. So far, Covid-19 has seen more than eight Titanics play Nearer My God To Thee in British hospitals. Many more are setting sail in the coming weeks.

The government’s preferred figures, awful though they are, flatter it. ONS data shows that deaths are running far in excess of the expected levels for the time of year and that excess is far greater than can be accounted for by the daily death tolls announced by the government. Covid-19 may be responsible for up to twice as many deaths in the UK as are currently being given by the government.

The government has protested that international comparisons are unhelpful. Mandy Rice-Davies, that skewer of Conservative politicians, would know what to say about that.

For the government has made many contentious decisions and indecisions.  Though the spread of Covid-19 was widely reported from January, the government’s COBRA committee only met to discuss it for the first time on 2 March. The government was slow to lock down (apparently flirting with allowing the disease to spread widely first to get to an early herd immunity) and the lockdown has been mild by international standards. 

Testing for Covid-19 has been woefully low for an unacceptably long period, meaning that the real spread of the disease is wholly unclear. It has failed to secure the ventilators it wanted, it has conspicuously failed to secure the PPE that it needs (spurning, apparently on ideological grounds, the chance to participate in the EU’s collective scheme and as a result reducing the amount of PPE available further).  

Or perhaps it is a weakness in the British health system. Though the NHS seems to have remained orderly throughout, the mortality rate for admittances is high so far as can be told from international comparisons.  There are many possible explanations for that but none are flattering.

Meanwhile, the mid-market tabloids have latched onto the carnage that seems to be taking place in the country’s care homes. This looks set only to get worse.  

A competent opposition would be demanding answers why thousands appear to have died in this pandemic as a result of government policies and decisions. Perhaps Sir Keir Starmer is more like his predecessor than either his opponents hope or his supporters fear, deciding that inaction on the greatest subject of the moment is politically wiser than taking a stand. But for a new leader of the opposition seeking to make his mark and make a difference, the real fight starts here.

Even as the morgues fill and mass graves are being dug, paleoconservatives like Toby Young and Dan Hannan are calling for a lifting of the lockdown. Like children in the backseat of the car moaning “are we nearly there yet?”, they don’t have constructive suggestions but they don’t half make a racket. 

They aren’t even asking the right question. They should not be asking when to lift the lockdown but when the public will return to economic activity.  The two are not the same thing. The country did not wait for the government to fire the starting pistol before it retreated to self-isolation – transport data shows how many people started to work from home in the week before that. 

Merely lifting the lockdown will not lure out those who do not feel safe. If people are still dying in their hundreds, those who are at high risk, those who feel vulnerable and those who feel risk averse are going to carry on doing exactly what they are doing right now: staying put.

Women make something like 80% of consumer spending decisions and the wealth of the country is concentrated with the elderly.  Given that women tend to be more risk-averse than men and that Covid-19 affects the elderly particularly badly, lifting the lockdown before Covid-19 has been demonstrably tamed would not produce the return to economic hum that its advocates fancy.  Such a decision would allow the reckless to continue spreading the disease without inducing those who hold the purse strings to come out of hiding. It would almost certainly be the worst of both worlds.

Those advocating an end to the lockdown are right in one narrow respect: the current lockdown is unsustainable in the long term. The OBR is predicting that the UK will see a 35% drop in GDP in the short term. That seems all too believable. All the while, the government is spending money like water.  At some point, the money will run out – or need to be printed. A point will be reached where the government will need to allow for more economic activity than it is currently permitting. We must hope that Covid-19 is tamed quickly. The public finances are already in ruins.

The OBR predicts, more tentatively, that the economy will bounce back after lockdown is lifted. That requires more optimism than I possess.

Long is the way and hard, that out of Hell leads up to light. The public are not suddenly going to refill the pubs, bars and restaurants, not while they fear serious illness or death.  The theatres, cinemas, gyms and gigs are going to be seen as vectors of disease. Buses, trains and planes will be seen as high risk forms of transport. Dentists, beauticians and hairdressers are going to be used only in cases of emergency. And in the meantime, many businesses (as Oasis and Warehouse have this week) will – no matter how much support the government tries to offer – go bust.

There will then be the decision how to pay for the crisis.  Cuts, tax increases and further borrowing of the levels required will almost certainly be toxic for any government. That leaves debauching the currency by printing money or outright default. So the government, while riding high in the polls at present, faces some fearful decisions, decisions that go against every instinct of traditional Conservatives.  The government may baulk at the idea. But if they don’t do it, an Opposition will spring up only too willing to tap into the inevitable popular unrest.

Politics has been grim enough in Britain in the last few years.  It is set to get still worse.

Alastair Meeks