Cllr Chris Hossack is the Leader of Brentwood Borough Council.
2020 has seen the government introduce unprecedented protection measures at huge cost to the economy and Treasury. The Bank of England warning this will be the worst financial crisis for over 300 years; surely we will not recover for many years hence?
Controversial lockdown measures have largely been applied on the basis of geography as well as the shutting down of certain business sectors, notably in hospitality, that are deemed to be non-essential.
At a local economy level, it is evident that these blunt lockdown measures are benefitting the big supermarket brands and killing our independent traders i.e. traditional high streets. For instance, Tesco overall sales soared nearly seven per cent in the first half, with on-line purchases up a staggering 69 per cent.
The much documented High Street demise has been a long time in the making, as supermarkets are effectively high streets under one roof, often incorporating florists, money exchanges, key cutting, clothing etc. Covid lockdowns have only exposed how this disproportionately affects independents, sending them further towards extinction. An independent stationer is entitled to feel aggrieved that their business is closed at the observance of unworkable attempts to close off greeting card isles in the superstores.
Consumers have traditionally held the key to the survival of the high street in the way they choose to purchase their goods, by putting local support above convenience. Under the lockdown approach, consumers cannot help their local businesses even if they want to.
Thousands upon thousands of businesses have closed this year, many will never re-open again. We simply have to think of another way unless we are prepared to accept the accelerated shift towards retail conglomeracy.
The statistical case for the lockdown is hugely one sided. The unreadable PowerPoint slides delivered by Professor Whitty and Sir Patrick (over estimations and miscategorisations aside) only ever make the case for further restrictions based on clinical data around projected infection and mortality rates. All at the end of the day, designed to manage the pressure on the NHS.
In order to make a more robust decision on a workable strategy, a multiple-criteria decision-making method must be used.
Mainstream statistics seldom include businesses closures, rates of depression and suicide, stats on delayed treatments for cancer patients, and the subsequent mortality rates in patients aside from Covid. Never mind the impact on the Treasury as jobs are lost,Tax and National Insurance income depletes, the DWP budget soars to help replace lost household income. As homeowners try to cling onto the paying the bills, rents and mortgage with what little income they have. No wonder council house waiting lists are also set to soar too. When do we ever see these graphs?
We understand the need to protect the NHS but I fear how the massive tilt from income to expenditure on the Treasury’s books is going to make this possible at all, as the economy as a whole is burned for the whole purpose of saving it. Where will the funding come from?
The blanket approach centred on regional and economic shutdown isn’t working. Hopefully England will come out of this current lockdown on December 2nd, then what? Yes we want some assemblance of normality to return for Christmas, but as we ease off the restraints and socialise more, the infection rate will once again rise. We should anticipate entering a third lockdown sometime in the New Year. Society and the economy simply cannot keep going through this yo-yo existence purely for the purpose of managing hospital patient throughput.
We hope to see a Covid 19 vaccination programme start in December but before the benefits are realised, transmission and infection will remain a problem for months to come.
What we do know is which segments of our society are most likely to be hospitalised as a result of the virus, namely the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions. Surely the focus of effort must be intensified towards shielding this sector of our community, whilst the majority can focus on getting our economy moving again, to fund the machinery of state that we all depend on?
The civil liberties case, worthy of an entirely separate article, is a huge consideration. For instance, the liberty of a healthy active 80 year old to be curtailed against their will would not be right. For those in their twilight years to be forced into isolation would be wrong. But to understand the risks and make the personal choice of whether to avail themselves of the protections available or not, is something all those in the vulnerable categories should be trusted to make for themselves.
Again, these hugely difficult moral questions are all predicated on the engrained refrain to ‘Protect the NHS’. So finally, let’s look at that. If the phenomena of the pandemic is to be a more regular occurrence, as is anticipated, then we absolutely need to plan for that as a society. The billions spent on furlough and business support grants, need now to be thought of in the context of investment for NHS planning and preparation, to increase infrastructure, capacity, staffing and training.
We simply cannot ever again sacrifice everything to protect the NHS; we must re-align the NHS if it is to have the capability to handle global pandemic scenarios in the future.