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Lockdown is over. What next?

May 30th, 2020

Complex and odd rules plus the Cummings effect mean the public will decide for themselves what to do about Covid-19

Winston Churchill did not go out of his way to sell sunny optimism. During the 1930s, much to the irritation of his own party, he led the campaign to rearm the country in the face of a Nazi threat he considered – and said – was much greater and more imminent than the government would allow. On becoming prime minister, he then levelled with parliament about the sacrifices that would be needed over years, famously having “nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat”. And then in 1946, having delivered on that promise, he educated a world weary of war and death that the struggles were not over; that the democratic West’s erstwhile ally, the Soviet Union, was the new enemy and needed confronting. These were not messages calculated to win favour. They were, however, necessary.

Boris Johnson, whatever his fantasies, is not Winston Churchill. He did, at the point of lockdown, admit that many people would die of Covid-19 before their time but since then, he’s reverted to his natural upbeat tones. This is an enormous error, all the more so because of the dubious circumstances in which the lockdown is ending.

It may be coincidence but the timing of the announcements of the reopening of schools and shops, and the relaxing of social distancing measures in England – as we now know, without the backing of SAGE; a marked departure from “being led by the science” – might easily be seen as an attempt to bury the bad Cummings news. If so, that would be reprehensible prioritising; if not, the government really should have made better efforts to answer ‘why now?’.

Whether the majority of the public notice that is doubtful. After all, the first two announcements didn’t shift the media narrative from Cummings anyway. The public has, however, noticed the Cummings story and is not impressed. That’s reflected both in specific polling on Cummings’ actions themselves, and in the voting intention figures. This time last week, the Tories were sitting on 12-15% poll leads; that is now down by more than half, to 5-6% (although the fact that it is still a lead is an indication of the trust problem with the public that Labour has).

The problem, however, is far from purely political. If the government’s anti-Covid-19 strategy is to work, it needs the public to follow it willingly because there is not the means to enforce it otherwise. And the public will only follow it if it believes in it and in the government’s handling of the crisis. I have severe doubts on that score.

For one thing, the rules themselves make little sense. You can meet up with six people from different households as long as you do so outside – unless you have to walk through the house to get to the garden, which is ok; and you can go inside to the toilet as long as you clean it afterwards; and so on. No-one is going to bother with that level of detail, especially when senior members of the government (which includes advisors), are clearly not fussed about the rules anyway and the PM isn’t bothered about criticizing such broad self-interpretation.

Besides, if schools are re-opening for the youngest primary school children, who are clearly incapable of social distancing, and shouldn’t be asked to try, then that merely adds to the impression that the rules are all over the place and that people are best making up their own minds as to what’s best. Given lockdown fatigue, we can therefore expect quite widespread social interaction among groups who don’t think themselves high-risk.

If that does happen – indeed, if the lockdown simply continues to unwind officially – we must inevitably see a new rise in Covid-19 cases. The virus remains very much in circulation. There were over 16,000 newly detected cases in the UK this last week alone but the ONS data indicates that the real figure could well be well over treble that.

Without a highly effective track-and-trace, there is no way to prevent a new rise in cases – and if little more than a quarter are being identified then there can be no effective track-and-trace, even if the technology underlying the track-and-trace worked, which is highly doubtful.

The question here is whether the government is ready for that and whether the public is ready for it. If the strategy isn’t being driven by the health science then (political tactics aside), the best assumption is that it’s being driven by economics.

That is not, of itself, unreasonable. The lockdowns in the US have led to 40m people signing on for jobless insurance. That’s the equivalent of around 8m in Britain, with a population one-fifth the size – and 8m is roughly the number of people on the government’s furlough scheme. The data ties together so neatly that we can reasonably take it as indicative of where we’d be without that scheme. But the costs of government support are crippling for more than a few months. The government borrowed £20bn more in the month of April 2020 alone than through the whole of 2019. Similarly, who knows how many zombie firms there’ll be out there if they’re unable to earn an income?

This brings us to a fine balance. On the one hand, if the restrictions are lifted quickly, there will be many more cases sooner and more people will die than would otherwise have done from the virus, while more may die from the NHS still having to be Covid-19 centric (it may have the additional capacity in hardware now but the staff who’d be needed to treat the coronavirus cases could be doing something else; it will be all-but-impossible to all the other services to run ‘as normal’).

On the other hand, a prolonged lockdown could harm the national finances to such an extent that the NHS wouldn’t be funded to the same level, while the mental impact on many people who’d otherwise be less affected would be more severe. And in any case, the virus is still out there in the world. Even if it could be restricted to small outbreaks domestically, could we really be sure that we wouldn’t import new serious outbreaks?

But here we return to the opening point. None of this is being talked about by the government. There is no discussion of the challenges ahead, of opening up, of staying locked down (or of having to lock down again – if that’s even possible), or of what the final destination is. By contrast, Churchill was clear on that point too, in the same 1940 speech: the final destination was “victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory no matter how long and hard to road may be”.

Johnson has made neither the overall aim clear, nor the route by which it will be reached, nor the costs to be paid in getting there. That is more than seriously poor expectations management: it is a dereliction of the Prime Minister’s duty to lead. Indeed, it’s not even clear if there is any such grand strategy.

The aim must, in reality, be national herd immunity. The question is ‘how?’. Two routes are plausible. The first is to keep infections as low as possible, consistent with a functioning country, and wait for a vaccine. The other is to manage the herd immunity naturally; to let those sectors of the population most resilient to it go about their business and manage cases among them in an expanded NHS, while shielding the vulnerable. By accident or covert design, it appears that the latter is the road down which the UK is going.

Except that without that plan being put to the people (if there is sufficient design to dignify it as such), and without the people having trust in the government’s handling of Covid-19, it’s anyone’s guess as to who will shield and who will mix, with the result that many more vulnerable will die – as far too many in care homes already have.

Dominic Cummings is supposed to be a fan of Sun Tzu. He will therefore be familiar with his aphorism that “tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat”. It seems to me that having sacrificed its Covid-19 strategy and any right to trustworthiness in order to protect Cummings, all the government has left now are tactics.

David Herdson

p.s. Last week I predicted that Dominic Cummings would end up being sacked. While that’s still possible, the odds are now firmly in his favour for the time being. My apologies for that error. I didn’t foresee that for once in his life, Boris Johnson would prove so loyal, at such a heavy price.