isThis is the classic example of being caught between a rock and a hard place. The number of people being treated for Covid-19 in hospital is growing rapidly and is currently higher than it was when the UK entered full national lockdown on March 23. The worse is yet to come.
At the same time, the threat of mass unemployment is increasingly looming. More workers were made redundant in the three months to August than at any time since banks almost went bankrupt ten years ago. The worst is to come here too.
Opinions are divided on what to do next. There are those who believe the second wave of Covid is potentially so serious that a full national lockdown is needed, regardless of the cost. The work plan for a two- or three-week breaker is actually a national lockdown, just time-limited.
Then there are those who question the wisdom of pushing the economy back into a deep recession when young people bear the brunt of unemployment and the average age of those dying from the virus is 80 and over. For this group, the answer is to protect the vulnerable and let everyone live their lives.
The government’s desire to avoid another total foreclosure in England is understandable. Closing schools harms children, especially poor children. Millions of routine cancer exams have been canceled so far this year. The 25% contraction of the economy between February and April was the hardest for the youngest and most vulnerable workers. Who can say that a circuit breaker will not be followed by a second, a third and a fourth, given that it may be years rather than months before a vaccine is available?
Also, the idea that the whole country should be locked out just to show that we are all together does not make sense. Forcing a hotel in the southwest of England, where infection rates are low, out of business would do nothing to engender a sense of national solidarity. Quite the reverse, in fact. Ideally, the response should be more local and granular, rather than broad and national.
It is also a mistake to imagine that there is a binary choice between saving lives and saving the economy – that the only way to prevent an exponential increase in the number of Covid-19 cases is for the government to keep people locked in their homes. .
There are two reasons for this. The first, as Professor Paul Anand of the Open University noted in a letter to the Guardian, is that there is evidence that transmission is related to living in shared accommodation and is most marked in cramped housing, where physical distance is a problem.
The second is that epidemiological models offer chilling predictions for death rates because they assume no change in people’s behavior in the absence of government-imposed lockdowns or other restrictions.
Yet the world does not work that way. Faced with a pandemic, people are changing the way they live. They go out less and when they leave their homes, they take more precautions. They carry out their own risk assessments, based on the available evidence.
Science models suggested that Sweden would suffer 96,000 Covid-19-related deaths in the first wave, due to its government’s decision to impose only slight restrictions, but they assumed the Swedes would continue as before. They didn’t, resulting in the death toll being less than 6,000 – a figure which would have been much lower had it not been for the problems encountered in Swedish retirement homes.
This does not mean that Sweden has been immune to the fallout from the pandemic recession. According to forecasts from the International Monetary Fund, the Swedish economy will contract by 4.7% this year. This contrasts, however, with the 9.8% registered for the United Kingdom.
Every country in the world is trying to find the sweet spot where the virus is removed with minimum economic damage, and most are doing better than the UK. Take South Korea, which has so far only had 438 dead. He has had clusters of cases, and the IMF predicts that its economy will not contract more than 1.9% this year.
There are clearly lessons to be learned. Sweden shows the merits of having a clear strategy and sticking to it. This contrasts sharply with the UK, where the government initially downplayed the threat, imposed some of the world’s toughest restrictions, eased as the economic cost rose, actively encouraged people to eat out to help the industry. hospitality, and is now back where it started. The mixed messages here left people confused and, under the circumstances, it’s surprising that compliance with the restrictions is as high as it is. This, however, may have more to do with people taking steps to protect themselves voluntarily than any reliance on government.
South Korea’s lesson is that an effective tracking and testing system is the key to limiting the number of Covid-19 deaths and protecting the economy. Boris Johnson’s government had seven months to deliver something comparable, and failed to do so.
The UK has so far experienced the worst of all worlds: high death rates and colossal economic damage. This unfortunate combination is expected to continue.
On past form, Johnson’s government will no doubt insist that it is committed to its current strategy until the moment it hits the panic button. General restrictions will then be imposed and will more than likely remain in place for the remainder of the winter. There is no guarantee that the virus will have finally been defeated by the time the time restrictions are lifted in the spring. Unemployment queues will be much longer, however. For sure.