Last week Professor Neil Ferguson, who resigned from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) after it was revealed he broke lockdown rules by meeting with his married lover, said that the death toll from Covid-19 could have been halved if we had gone into lockdown a week earlier. Minutes from a meeting of SAGE held on 13th March highlight that the experts were not, at that time, recommending a full lockdown. And it is worth noting that Ferguson was one of the experts on SAGE.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing. That is certainly what Ferguson, ministers and officials will tell you about the current Covid-19 crisis. They say that they are being guided by “the science” (since when did science have the definite article in front of it? Science changes all the time), and that they made “the right decisions at the right time”.
I must start by saying that although politicians are ultimately responsible for making political decisions, the vast majority of ministers do not have a scientific background. Boris Johnson has a classics degree from Oxford. Dominic Raab is a lawyer. Rishi Sunak read philosophy, politics and economics (PPE) at Oxford, as did Matt Hancock. The Prime Minister, First Secretary of State, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Health Secretary are not well equipped to deal with a pandemic from a scientific point of view. They rely on experts.
There will eventually be an inquiry, or inquiries, into the Government’s handling of Covid-19, but I don’t think I am saying anything radical when I say that not all decisions were made at the right time. How could they be? And if you are a minister without a scientific background, how much blame will be levelled at you for taking advice from your scientific experts? It is a courageous minister who refuses to accept that advice. If you are wrong and the experts are right, your political career will be sunk faster than the Titanic.
It is now almost 13 weeks since Boris Johnson ordered a full lockdown. Since then, restrictions have been gradually lifted. This week, non-essential shops reopened, but schools remain closed to the vast majority of pupils, and the hospitality industry is still in deep freeze. Beer gardens may reopen on 4th July, but what about those pubs and restaurants who do not have outdoor seating? I fear that many of those businesses will never welcome customers again.
I was talking to someone recently who told me about a friend of his who runs a bar. He is down to his last £10,000. His landlord is still demanding £5,500 a month in rent. He still has insurance premiums to pay and other bills. Do the maths. That business is not going to be viable for much longer. There are many furloughed employees who are effectively redundant. We have saved lives, but how many livelihoods have we sacrificed? Can we afford to sacrifice even more? I do not think that we can.
One of the sticking points is the two-metre rule. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends that we socially distance by one metre. Many European countries use 1.5 metres. Everything in life involves risk. We cannot lead risk-free lives. But reducing social distancing by one metre will have a huge impact on businesses. Rishi Sunak told Conservative MPs that if the two-metre rule is reduced, 75 per cent of pubs could reopen. If it is not reduced, 75 per cent will remain closed. It really is that stark. The Government must change the two-metre rule. Livelihoods depend on it.
In the last three months, we have witnessed huge restrictions on our freedoms because of the Covid-19 virus. When I watched reports of people dying on ventilators in hospitals in Northern Italy, I felt that in 2020 it was right to restrict some of our freedoms to protect public health. But all restrictions imposed on us in the emergency legislation passed in March should be carefully reviewed in September, and, of course, restrictions on our freedoms and liberties should not be enforced without good reason. The Government must not be allowed to make temporary restrictions permanent.
Then there is red tape. Why is the Government not saying to businesses that you can reopen, but you must maintain social distancing? Ministers should leave it up to them how they manage it. Instead, there is form filling and risk assessments, all eating up valuable time. The Government should not be micromanaging businesses. It should trust businesses to do the right thing, and if necessary, take action against those who do not.
There must also be a way of reopening schools to all pupils. Schools have had months to prepare for this. All the evidence from around the world points to children being largely unaffected by Covid-19. They also do not spread it in the same way as adults. Children need to go back to school.
A vaccine may never be found. We are going to have to learn to live with this virus and manage risk. We cannot go on forever like this. We must get the economy moving again.