The political consensus on how we should live with the coronavirus has completely shattered. We will exist alongside this deadly virus for many months to come; the need for national unity in the face of its immense social, financial and health challenges has never been greater.
Yet last week the cracks opened wide. Leaders of decentralized nations want to go beyond Westminster but feel constrained by a lack of financial support. Keir Starmer has backed calls by government science advisers for a nationwide time-bound lockdown. And the government is engaged in a battle with Greater Manchester regional leaders – both Labor mayor and Tory MPs – over its attempt to impose tougher restrictions without coming close to the levels of financial support needed to avoid intense difficulties.
The country is fragmenting when it has to pull itself together and the blame can be laid at the feet of the Prime Minister. Covid-19 presented the biggest governance challenge in a generation. Yet at every turn Boris Johnson has proven himself weak and incapable. Pulled in various directions by a divided cabinet, he heads a government that has suffered wacky failures in building a working test and traceability system. He has failed to take decisive action and has shown reluctance to extend a financial lifeline to areas of the country that are suffering the most from Wave 2. Instead of creating a sense of national unity, he sought to deflect attention from his incompetence by using asylum seekers and anti-racist protesters as bait into culture wars.
No easy compromises
There are those who have sought to polarize the debate in recent weeks: to suggest that there are two options – lock down the country or let the virus rip to gain collective immunity; that there is a sort of monumental confrontation to be had between the health of the nation and the needs of the economy.
It is not a true representation of the choices we face. At the onset of the pandemic, government science advisers made it clear that until there was a vaccine, we would experience a time of fluctuating social restrictions to control the spread of the virus. The need for these, however, can be minimized with a functional test, tracing and isolation system. If this fails to prevent widespread transmission, the best option is to act quickly to curb the rapid growth in infection rates, to avoid the need for more stringent and longer-lasting restrictions later.
This is the sad reality we face and it’s understandable that people wish it was different. But not taking action to remove the virus is not an option. There is no scientific evidence that population-level immunity to Covid-19 could be achieved by allowing it to spread and public health experts have warned that it would be impossible to adequately protect the 40% of the population which would include those deemed vulnerable and those who take care of them. Failure to impose social restrictions to try to control the virus once infection rates are high and growing will not save the economy, protect people’s mental health, or improve survival rates for it. conditions unrelated to Covid. All that’s going to happen is hospital rates and then death rates are going to skyrocket; the government will be forced to tougher levels of social restrictions and the NHS will have to stop all elective care while it is overwhelmed.
This is not to deny the dilemmas that our leaders must resolve. What type of testing and traceability system best minimizes the need for social restrictions in the first place? As we learn more about how the virus spreads, what kind of social restrictions are we best able to tolerate and what should we avoid at all costs, like school closures? And how can we best mitigate the inevitable economic, educational and welfare costs associated with the management of Covid-19? It is a government that has completely failed on all three points.
Bungling test and tracing
It’s unlikely that a testing and traceability system could have completely delayed a second wave of the virus, but it undoubtedly could have reduced the level of restrictions required to handle it. Yet the government has failed to build anything that comes close to a functioning test, tracing and isolation infrastructure.
He ignored early calls from public health experts to build a system based on the expertise and efficiency of local public health teams; instead, he chose to award multi-million pound contracts to run mass call centers to companies with appalling delivery records. It was only after months of failure and delay that ministers reconsidered this approach. Even though it has spent £ 12bn on an inefficient system, the government has failed to provide those who are required to self-isolate for 14 days with adequate financial support, meaning many simply cannot not afford to do so. The result is a mess of a system that government science advisers say has only a marginal impact on transmission.
In March, the British government was slower to act in introducing social restrictions than many others in Europe; it is likely that this contributed to the UK suffering one of the worst Covid death rates in Europe to date. Yet he seems to be repeating the same mistakes in the second wave. We know that government science advisers have recommended the introduction of a combination of social restrictions at the end of September, including a two-week nationwide “breaker” lockdown that would slow the growth of the virus, giving more time to improve the tests and traces of the country. infrastructure when it can still make a difference.
Yet Johnson rejected that advice, opting for only one of the proposed measures – overturning the homework guidelines. The government encouraged students to start their academic year as usual, despite warnings that university accommodation would become hotbeds of Covid, which would lead to wider community transmission, likely because it did not want to happen. embarrassing the fee waivers and financial support that distance learning would require. In doing so, it has pushed too many young people leaving their homes for the first time into intolerable living conditions with little support.
It’s not easy to act early to avoid having to take tougher, more painful action later – asking the public to comply with restrictions that may seem disproportionate. But that is what responsible political leadership requires. We support calls for a limited circuit breaker lockout scheduled around school holidays to stop the growth of the virus; this is now likely to have more impact in areas where infection rates are lower, but increasing rapidly, than those where infection rates are already very high and therefore will now need to be subjected to stricter and longer restrictions.
Also in March, the government introduced generous financial support that has gone a long way in protecting jobs. But it ends just as the second wave hits the less wealthy regions of the country. The leave regime for level 3 zones is less generous and far too restrictive, limited only to businesses ordered to close. The result will be widespread job losses, with large numbers of people forced to live on frugal unemployment benefits; According to the Resolution Foundation, if the government implements the planned reduction in universal credit next April, unemployment assistance will be at its lowest level in real terms since 1992.
As Gordon Brown argues on our pages this week, one need only look at what happened in the 1980s to see what is about to unfold. When jobs leave a community, so do hope and aspiration. Young people will bear the brunt of this unemployment crisis and their livelihoods and well-being will suffer for the rest of their lives. Many more children will grow up hungry, homeless and destitute as intergenerational cycles of poverty set in.
Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, is right to insist on higher levels of financial support to accompany tougher social restrictions in the city; in doing so, he hopes regions of the country lacking a prominent mayor but also facing increasing restrictions will benefit. Throughout this crisis, the government has done far too little to mitigate its impact on the most vulnerable: on children at risk of abuse or neglect, on older people with dementia in care homes unable to see their children. relatives for lack of testing, on those with mental health problems suffering during confinement. There can be no excuse for leaving large parts of the country in the cold.
A terrible legacy
Covid-19 is a crisis like no other. No government will do everything right, but as citizens we have the right to expect our political leaders to learn from their mistakes; to bring us up to the level of difficult choices; show care and compassion for those most at risk. Instead, we have a Prime Minister who values dynamism over substance, who is willing to sow discord and disunity if he thinks it is to his political advantage. His appalling legacy will be a more divided and unequal Britain.