The story of 2020 so far has been dominated by Corovirus-19. Despite global efforts to the contrary, the balance of the year will be the same. This story has been full of heroic efforts by those on the medical and supply front line; stoic acceptance by the public of drastic measures and a government prepared to throw away the fiscal rule book after a decade of austerity. But has the focus been wise, let alone effective?
The priority of saving the NHS from being overwhelmed has dominated. Since this has (so far) been avoided, media have focused on supply of protective equipment and, more recently, to the overlooking of serious infection rates in vulnerable care homes. Daily briefings have tried to keep the debate on flattening infection rates, hospital admissions and death statistics by a stringent ‘lock down’ of all but essential services. A ‘task force” to look into PPE supplies has been set up under Lord Dayton.
In itself, this all seems laudable. But plans for ending the lock-down and any timing for life to return to normal have been absent. The government gives the impression of having been caught unaware and more concerned with remaining on top of things than appears to be the case, claiming to be guided by science and simply repeating a simplistic mantra for public consumption. By this approach, deaths are not avoided, just delayed. The resulting economic damage from a long delay will likely cause more deaths.
This is simply not good enough. But, rather than curse their darkness, such a threat to everyone requires that we light a candle to guide them.
Strategy Lockdown in three week periods is not a strategy to address what will be required to sustain people over a year of hardship.
The epidemic will be mastered only when an antidote is administered to most people or herd immunity having around 65% of the population infected then recovered. This will require massive testing and rigorous tracking, rather than wait for an antidote. Before anything else, the provision of PPE and testing should be made to all care homes.
Testing & Tracking Despite ambition to test 100,000 each day, this is unlikely to occur without draconian, wartime efforts:
- A task force of science, manufacture and distribution experts with sweeping powers, reporting to the PM similar to Beaverbrook’s Ministry of Aircraft Production in WW2.
- International co-operation in developing an effective antidote
- Recruitment and organisation of relevant laboratories, pharmaceutical manufacturing and devolved distribution centres.
- Development, distribution and enforcement of a phone app to track people who have been in contact with anyone tested as infected.
- Much more pragmatic and honest public briefing on this plan, its realistic time scale and progress made to achieve it to keep people on-side,
Release from Lockdown Though no clear timetable will be possible before progress on first mass testing/tracking and then mass inoculation, nonetheless there must be a clear intention given on how the present necessary but unacceptable state of affairs will be moved towards a staged exit from lockdown. This should be in at least three stages, with release on multiple parameters:
- Red or Full lockdown (insufficient T&T)—essential services only; population indoors except for food & exercise.
- Orange or Serious (sufficient T&T; unlikely before June)—release of manufacturing, garden centres, DIY stores, takeaways that can keep social distance; release 18-35 year-old workers who live alone to return to work; restart creches, primary and nursery schools with half class sizes if social distance not possible under blanket testing, fully release pilot areas where access can be controlled entirely (Western Isles, Northern Isles, Anglesey, Isle of Wight)
- Yellow or Partial (widespread T&T; unlikely before September)—release small businesses that can test staff and keep social distance and agree staggered business hours to spread rush hour; restart secondary schools, colleges & universities with half class sizes if social distance not possible; release 18 to 35 year-old parents and couples to work where tasting is available and distance can be kept; allow small retail to re-open; release rural and isolated areas with low through traffic and high T&T ability.
- Green or Complete (universal T&T or vaccine; unlikely before December)—complete release of all areas, possibly in stages, dependent on on-going infection rates. Only at this stage would pubs, clubs, cafes, sports venues, theatres, cinemas and other events involving crowds be permissible. Transport would return to normal, except foreign travel, which would depend on the situation in other countries.
Such a template clearly requires research and refinement. But while all focus has been on the NHS, the economy has shrunk by a third. However generous government schemes may be, they can’t create consumer demand or international trade and travel. Each month in lockdown, increasing numbers and increasing size of businesses will go under, damaging business demand and supply and extending the period after we attain “Green” to years, not months. We are not entering a ‘V’-shaped recession of swift recovery. We are entering a full-blown depression on the scale of the 1930s. We need vision, guts and a plan to compare with Roosevelt’s New Deal to survive it.
Or we are just arranging deckchairs on the Pandemic while our future drowns.