Daniel Hannan is a writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.
The news that Oxford University might have a Coronavirus vaccine ready as early as Christmas is wonderful. British readers may be forgiven a dash of patriotic pride at the thought that this country, the country of Edward Jenner, the country that discovered vaccination (or at least, as Matt Ridley shows in his book on innovation, the country that developed and popularised the idea, innovation generally being incremental and collaborative) is once again leading the world. I suspect the chances of a mutually beneficial UK-EU deal have just improved.
The sad truth is that only a vaccine (or a cure) now offers the prospect of a return to normality. Lifting the lockdown has led, in the event, to a disappointingly small uptick in activity. Our city centres remain deserted, our workforce furloughed. I had allowed myself to hope that we were chafing against these restrictions, that we stood like greyhounds in the slips, straining upon the start. But most of us have responded to the reopening by putting our tails between our legs and whimpering.
It is worth dwelling, for a moment, on why this should be. There was far more social and economic activity on the eve of the lockdown than there is now. Yet, logically, nothing has happened during the intervening four months to make us more nervous than we were then. In late March, as we watched the horrific scenes from Lombardy, we were bracing for an epidemic that might overwhelm our healthcare system. In the event, it wasn’t just our Nightingale hospitals that stood empty; so did many ward beds.
We now know that healthy young people are extremely unlikely to experience severe symptoms, and that transmission through casual contact is rare. We have recently learned that our death rates are not as bad as they had seemed: incredibly, Public Health England was counting everyone who had died having had the coronavirus as a Covid fatality – even if they made a full recovery and then died of something else.
In the week which ended on July 10 (the last for which we have figures) total deaths were in fact six per cent below the average of the previous five years. Sweden, which imposed only light restrictions and trusted to people’s common sense, has not seen the apocalypse that was widely predicted in March. Yet we are bizarrely more reluctant to get back to work than we were at the start.
The explanation does not seem to be primarily medical. People normalise even unprecedented situations with astonishing rapidity. If their new routine is relatively painless – staying at home on something close to full pay, for example – they may be in little hurry to change it.
Staying at home is, like anything else, habit-forming. Clinical psychologists explain agoraphobia and related strains of anxiety partly as a negative feedback loop. Something frightening happens to you outside, so every time you go out afterwards you feel nervous, which means that you remember the sensation of being outside as intrinsically unpleasant, making you even more nervous the next time, and so on.
While it would be silly to suggest that millions of people are suffering from clinical anxiety, it may be that a mild form of the negative-feedback syndrome is tipping people against going back to commuting. Four months of being bombarded with the message “stay home, save lives” could hardly fail to have an impact.
The prospect of a vaccine makes it even less likely that we will try to work around the disease, Sweden-style. Employers who might have reopened their offices over the coming weeks are now more likely to hold out in the hope of a definitive solution.
That will prolong and deepen our recession. Life has not returned to London as it has to, say, Lisbon or Copenhagen. Our eventual recovery will come too late for those firms that have been forced into insolvency. For many, the “job retention scheme” (as the furlough is formally called) is a cruel name for what is, in fact, a form of deferred redundancy.
If, in a best-case scenario, a vaccine is found this year, our problems will still be just starting. Months of closures will be followed by years of joblessness and decades of debt. And if the vaccine turns out not to be effective, this week’s false hope could simply put off a modified return to work.
I don’t like playing Cassandra. As long-standing readers will know, I am generally an exuberant optimist in the Steven Pinker/Matt Ridley/Johan Norberg mould. But we need to understand that the decisions we have taken over the past 16 weeks will have consequences for many years.
I’m not sure everyone has yet made the connection. I hope I’m wrong, but I can imagine Piers Morgan and other commentators who demanded the longest and strictest lockdown pivoting to complain about high unemployment. Sadly, we are about to find out.