Jumping at shadows

May 3rd, 2020

April is the cruellest month. At least, that is what the authorities hope. The government has carefully signalled that it intends to begin a slow relaxation of the lockdown, if Britain continues to move out of its total eclipse by Covid-19 into a penumbral recuperation from the most ferocious aspects of its onslaught.

The government has to wrestle with two conflicting risks when making its decision. If Britain comes out of lockdown too early, it might risk a resurgence of Covid-19. If it waits too long, the economic damage – already huge – would be needlessly made worse.  

Only a fool would envy them this responsibility. The evidence remains confused and far too little is known about this disease to be confident how any policy will play out. The government might make its decision carefully, on all available evidence, with the best available advice and still get this wrong. The chances are that it will.

You can see the stresses of government on the point in the fifth test for lifting lockdown. Originally it was formulated as “confidence that any adjustments to the current measures would not risk a second peak in infections”. Then it was reformulated as “confidence that any adjustments to the current measures would not risk a second peak in infections which would overwhelm the NHS”. Put more bluntly, will the government hold off until it is confident that the death rate won’t increase, or will it let the death rate increase, so long as the NHS can keep operating?

The government still seems to be working on the basis that it can restore the British economy by decree. That seems unlikely. For the British public are frightened. Polls show that the British public are the least enthused by the idea of reopening the country before the virus is contained – just 23% of Britons supported the idea. 50% of Germans were open to the idea, as were 53% of Italians.  

Britons are backing their words with their deeds. Roughly 20% of children were eligible to remain in school as children of key workers or with special educational needs. Fewer than 1% of schoolchildren are in fact going to school. Parents are unwilling to take any chances.

Some people are no doubt champing at the bit to get back to normal. Many others will be wary. Some will not be coming out of self-imposed lockdown until they have sufficient confidence that they are safe enough. Not everyone will stake their lives on the reliability of this (or any) government’s judgement. The optimists would have you believe that you have nothing to fear but fear itself. This is untrue. A slow lingering death by drowning in your own body fluids seems like plenty to fear to me.

This has both short and medium term consequences. Even if Covid-19 is quelled by social distancing measures, far fewer will be wanting to rush back on crowded trains into bustling metropolises, far fewer will be wanting to eat out in busy restaurants and drink in packed bars, coughing companions in opera houses and theatres will be still more unpopular, the buzz of a crowd at a football match will feel threatening to many rather than unmissable, the crush of gigs will be seen as high-risk activities.

(We are all going to become more conscious of rental costs. For example, when we eat out, we will find ourselves paying much more for the square footage around the table. Many will be happy to pay for the feeling of health security if the experience in the restaurant is of high enough quality. This is going to make the experience of going to restaurants much more of a luxury than it previously was.)

Providers of in-person social entertainment and recreation are facing carnage. Even if many are willing to return to their previous social habits, many will not be. The loss of trade will be substantial for most.  Only the strongest will survive. Even they will need to be lucky.

What will those people who fear social interactions want to do instead?  Well, I suggest they will prefer not to travel too far from their homes, they will prefer to live, shop and work in smaller towns rather than the very biggest cities, they will prefer to work from home if they conveniently can and they will prefer to socialise privately in small groups. They will consume their entertainment still more online.

I recognise that many will not have a say in the matter, at least so far as their work is concerned. A big slab of the economy relates to those who have to come into their workplace. Such workers will need to get past their personal preferences. (If you’re gung-ho to end the lockdown, consider carefully how you propose to tell such workers that they have to go to work even if they feel unsafe and even if there is a substantial risk that they could catch Covid-19. It’s not the most comfortable communication for a government to issue, is it?)

Many employees, however, will have agency about how and where they work. And at that margin, we can expect to see a substantial move for some time away from previous working practices. That margin will be more than enough to affect the viability of the businesses that service such employees.

This means that the biggest cities, and especially London, are likely to recover more slowly than the commuter towns around it. Within the largest cities, the suburbs are likely to recover more quickly than the centre. All of this would be in the short term a complete inversion of long term trends.

How enduring might those trends be? That for now is wholly unclear.  Much will depend on how long term a threat Covid-19 remains, and how entrenched new behaviours become. It would, however, be darkly ironic if, just at the moment that every politician is talking of the crisis that towns are facing, the country is instead at the start of a period of inner city decay.

Alastair Meeks