If ConservativeHome is writing about the Coronavirus, we know where to look for Government information. A mass of guidance and information is available.
But if, on the other hand, we want to find out the number of operations postponed since the original lockdown was announced on March 24; or that of cancer deaths; or that of those brought about by heart disease; or the harm wrought by rising mental health problems, or domestic abuse, or lost schooling, the Government has not compiled the relevant information and statistics for publication in a way that makes these easily available to find and read.
We are better off if we wish to report the number of job losses. But these are not issued together by the Government with, say, the rise in child and poverty since late March. There is no one-stop-shop source of official information about the damage to the economy since then – to livelihoods as well as to lives. As well, as we say, about those other harms to lives.
Now it is true that not all cancer deaths since March 24, say, can fairly be blamed on the long shutdown. But it isn’t beyond the wit of man to work out the number of deaths since then compared to those of a comparable six month period in a usual year.
It is also the case that some of any figures published would be contestable. But that’s also true of official Coronavirus estimates. For example, the task of working out the number of deaths in England has been has been complicated by two major changes in the way they have been calculated (in April and August).
There is an urgent point to this dry analysis. Today, Boris Johnson is trapped in a pincer movement between Labour, which is arguing for a short national lockdown, and his own party, which inclines to fewer restrictions faster. He will try to find a compromise – by tightening the conditions in the most repressive of the Government’s new three tiers, and extending these. That would enable him to toughen up while avoiding an England-wide shutdown.
So the Prime Minister is set gradually to be dragged by Keir Starmer towards that circuit-breaker lockdown in all but name. And once in it, there will be no quick way out, since the test and trace system isn’t working well enough to quell the rise in cases that would follow the end of the shutdown. So that wouldn’t happen at all, or at least only do in a curtailed form. We would be in semi-lockdown semi-permanently – which seems to be SAGE’s real aim.
All in all, we are all being manoeuvered into an annual cycle of near-total winter lockdowns and partially-eased summer ones, until or unless a vaccine is widely available, herd immunity is achieved or the virus abates.
This would risk bankrupting the country. National debt hit a record £2 trillion in September. It has reached 100.5 per cent of GDP, the highest level in 60 years. We cannot be sure that Britain would be able to borrow for the duration at the present rock-bottom rates to grow its way out of trouble. Even if it could, there is no guarantee that enough growth would come to stave off medium-term spending cuts and tax rises.
These would intensify the damage that this crisis is inflicting on lives as well as livelihoods – the rising toll in cancer deaths and educational harm and mental health problems which we refer to above, and so much more, including more poverty and deprivation.
Which takes us back to those figures. There is fierce dispute about whether voters are really as supportive of harsher lockdowns as the polls suggest. But Johnson can scarcely be blamed for not wanting to sail against the prevailing political weather.
In order to steer his way out of it, he will have to change it: changing the weather, after all, is what the best politicians do. In short, the Government must try to widen and deepen the national conversation about the Coronavirus. That will take a bit of time.
It entails drawing voters’ attention to the wider social and economic damage that living semi-permanently in lockdown would do. Some of the information that would help to do this is already out there. As Raghib Ali has pointed out on this site, the Department of Health’s own health cost-benefit analysis shows that to date “in the long-term, the health impacts of the two month lockdown and lockdown-induced recession are greater than those of the direct Covid-19 deaths”.
But Government sources tell ConservativeHome that the Department of Health has been resistant to getting all the healthcare-related facts and figures together in one place. That’s perhaps not surprising given its focus on the virus. It’s more surprising that the Treasury hasn’t done a parallel exercise on the economy.
Ultimately, it’s up to Downing Street to make the case, backed up by more information and strategic messaging, against more national lockdowns, with the damage to lives and livelihoods that this would bring. But the key player in forcing it to change is Rishi Sunak.
If we are truly to live with the virus and “live without fear”, as the Chancellor put it in the Commons recently, we must prepare to shift, in the absence of a track and trace plan that works, to a less restrictive and more voluntarist policy – one based on the balance of risk between the harm that Covid-19 does and the harm that shutdowns do.
And an indispensable part of any push for change is shifting public opinion to support it. This site has been calling since the spring for the Government to publish its estimate of non-Coronavirus healthcare costs to date; of the costs of lockdown to the economy to date, and of the total cost and total saving of the lockdown (which can be calculated by assigning a value, as government does elsewhere, to each human life in Britain).
Sunak, together with Ministers in other economic departments, such as Alok Sharma at BEIS, needs to push for three actions:
- A regular Treasury report that calculates the economic cost of the lockdown. That’s within his own gift, as it were, and the work could start today.
- A rolling Department of Health assessment of the human cost of the shutdown. That will be harder to get. The Chancellor will need the Prime Minister’s support to extract it.
- The creation of an economic counterweight to SAGE that considers livelihoods as well as lives, thus ensuring broader advice to the Prime Minister.
Finally, Ministers can’t act as the sole pathfinders for policy. Intrinsic to Margaret Thatcher’s success during the 1980s was the work of think-tanks and Conservative MPs in preparing the way for change.
There are a mass of Tory backbench groups and wider pressure organisations. The One Nation Caucus comes to mind for us at once, because Damian Green, its Chair, wrote a perceptive piece for this site yesterday about the choices that the Government now faces. Perhaps it or the No Turning Back Group – to pick a Parliamentary group a bit different in outlook – could produce a report.
Some of the think tanks are already working in this field. The Resolution Foundation has done an intergenerational audit. (See also David Willetts’ recent ConHome piece.) Policy Exchange has probed the Government’s NHS tracing app. (Benjamin Barnard wrote about its findings for us here.) The Institute of Economic Affairs has examined the NHS’ shortcomings; the Centre for Policy Studies has led the way in probing economic costs.
But more work will be needed if public opinion is to move. In the meantime, Sunak must continue to lead the way.