At some point Boris will have to make a hard decision. Thus far, he has been riding along on the coat-tails of “the scientific advice”. However, it is clear that this strategy cannot last forever, and that crunch point is fast approaching. Recorded Covid cases are beginning to spike up again and yesterday’s press conference from the UK Chief Scientific Advisor, Sir Patrick Vallance, and the UK Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty, demonstrates that the official scientific advice that Boris will have the choice to hide behind will be for further harsh, punitive measures – likely to be further lockdowns on at least the local level if not the national level.
However, Boris will also be aware of the other side – any further major lockdowns will completely ruin the economy. The economy is already in a very delicate stage. It currently appears that we are in the midst of the much-hoped-for v shaped recovery with a 6.6 per cent GDP growth in July as we move back into 2013 levels of GDP. At this stage it is very tentative recovery though and any disruption will almost certainly head this growth off.
Estimations for the scale of the economic damage that the country has suffered vary quite substantially, but all of them make for sobering and concerning statistics. Another way to look at the damage is by considering how the Government instantly threw away the country’s hard-earned budget surplus to create an expected budget deficit of £320 billion for this financial year.
Even this extraordinary level of government borrowing and spending – including subsidising the wages of over a third of the entire UK workforce – has not prevented major problems that will take time to resolve. For example, it has been estimated that unemployment will have almost doubled by the end of the year and the OBR expects that government borrowing will remain above £100bn until at least 2025.
On the face of it, it appears as if there are two choices: economic meltdown or the likely exponential spread of a virus that has officially led to thousands of deaths in the UK. However, it is not that simple. Firstly, a severe recession will inevitably lead to the associated persistent negative health consequences – including an increased mortality rate as Whitty admitted at yesterday’s press conference. Secondly, if Covid does spiral out of control in the way that the chief scientific advisers to the government seem to be suggesting, even if there is no lockdown, there comes as point where the hospitalisation and mortality rates become a serious risk to the economy.
Currently, it seems that the Government is considering several options in case the “rule of six” does not prevent the exponential spread of the virus. I have heard suggestions of a two-week lockdown over the school half term period, and now we have a 10pm curfew for all public establishments like pubs, clubs and restaurants. Of course, these would be all delaying actions until a vaccine become available and given the problems of vaccinating against the common flu, another coronavirus, there is no guarantee that this is the miracle end to the Covid saga that some elements of the media seem to portray.
Ultimately, whether Boris decides to keep the economy open or locks down to avoid the possibility of a short-term increase in the mortality rate is a question of judgement. Is Boris confident that the damage to the economy is worth it? Is he certain that the rate of excess deaths will not diminish or flatten out – can he even know before the end of the year?
There are other difficult questions that have not and cannot be answered; will the long-term effects of an economic disaster outweigh the short term effects of Covid? Can we accurately track the effects of Covid on people’s health rather than pre-existing conditions or whether lockdown is causing people to miss out on vital check-ups to catch conditions and lose treatment of preventable illness. Of course, these questions are all without the wider philosophical question – do we want government to rationalise our businesses, jobs, lives, and hopes down to simple numbers on a spreadsheet? Should the Government advise and then allow individuals to make a judgement call rather than simply imposing blanket bans? People are currently free to have their own opinion but eventually Boris will have to justify whichever side he comes down on.