Friday, 10 April 2020

A lockdown was the right thing to do

The lockdown is not something that was imposed on us by the government. The public imposed it on the government. The public got wind of an emerging pandemic that was killing increasing numbers of Italians and overwhelming their health system. With so little instruction and leadership from government, people started to take their own precautions. Panic buying started long before the lockdown. At the time, the government was still betting the farm on herd immunity - or that's the message that was received.

Naturally people don't like the idea of contracting a potentially lethal virus. Pressure began to mount on public institutions and large events were already starting to cancel of their own volition and latterly universities switched to online teaching. Had the government not made the trend official then eventually we'd get to where we are now, ramping up the construction of overspill hospital facilities and temporary morgues which would have accelerated the panic and the demands for a lockdown. Places of work would have faced public criticisms the same way Wetherspoons did. Eventually the government would have to capitulate - and by then anyone who could isolate would have done anyway.

As to how effective the lockdown will prove to be remains to be seen. We could and should have acted sooner and employed contact tracing, and the failure to do so with be the subject of political and academic inquiry for years to come. It can be argued that we're not dissimilar on the death curve to other countries but the metrics are so leaden with caveats they are next to useless. We can only judge our own performance in isolation on the basis of realistic expectations. In that estimation this government will be found wanting.

Now though, we have done the right thing. This is not much of a lockdown in that we are still free to get out and go shopping for the essentials - and that's how it must stay. We are not mole people. The only thing we could ever hope to do short of a rapid vaccine was to buy time to get the people and materials in place. This we have done. If we're wrong and this is all just a massive overreaction then temporary facilities can just as easily be dismantled, but it's a precaution worth taking.

As to the economic cost, whatever the hit to GDP we can at least take some comfort in that every other developed economy is doing roughy the same thing for the same reasons. I don't see that the subsequent recession need be a long one. Once the all clear is given the fundamentals and the infrastructure for recovery is all still there. We have the knowledge, the skills and the political will and a number of unexpected opportunities may arise. With affordable air travel off the agenda for the foreseeable future we may yet get that evasive regeneration for seaside towns.

There are those who say the longer term consequences would be worse than taking only limited action but had there not been a lockdown, we'd have seen more public cases that could have led to outbreaks of violence and irrational behaviour that would necessitate a police curfew anyway. I don't see any scenario where the end result isn't at least a partial shutdown if only to prevent persistent panic buying and to preserve public order.

I do struggle, however, to take the "do nothing" brigade seriously. Fellows such as James Delingpole and Fraser Nelson criticise the lockdown because of the economic impact but they're only too happy to shill for the no deal Brexit brigade which would have had roughly the same impact on trade and aviation and caused panic buying in the same vein, and would have had similarly long term ramifications for the economy without the comfort of everyone else doing it .

Whether the lockdown is right or wrong, it is ultimately we who demanded it. Now that we're in it, we are stuck with some rather difficult questions. Somehow we have to pay for it and eventually it has to end. It's just not sustainable. So then we are looking at a phased exit where we shall see equally muddled messages on what constitutes an essential reason to return to work. If there is one thing that has cost lives it's the ineffectual and incoherent communications from Number Ten.

It's going to be at least a year before a mass vaccination programme is ready to roll out and only by cutting all the corners of the normal authorisation process. Ultimately we can't stay locked down for that long and the longer it goes on the greater the mental health epidemic - which is sure to be the silent killer in all this. In the end we are all going to have to take our chances and mother nature will have the last laugh.

To a point we can be forgiven for not having a handle on this. Nothing like this has ever happened before. We've had killer viruses before but not in this age of hyper mobility and modern development. All our responses are based entirely on hypothetical scenarios and untested contingency planning. We'll become experts at handling this sort of thing but only after it's too late - and naturally that knowledge will atrophy by the time we need it again. As a species this is just how we roll. Societies never do fix the roof when the sun is shining.

Ultimately mine and your opinion o the lockdown is irrelevant. If there's a killer virus on the loose then people are going to take whatever steps they can to avoid catching it. Staying away from other people is instinctively a good idea in these such times. The notion that people would carry on as normal just because the government elects to do nothing is fanciful. We are not self-sacrificing worker bees waiting on instruction from our leaders. There was always going to be a cost to Corona and despite our best efforts, business as usual is impossible. Any government refusing to bend to that reality would soon find itself our of office. Tories may wait for orders from on high, but the British people don't.

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