As the Prime Minister’s language – in body and word – seemed to demonstrate on Saturday evening, the latest lockdown measures are a defeat. They represent a failure of both state capacity and policy.
Those of us who supported the first lockdown did so in the expectation that we were buying time for the Government to better protect us. Back then, we knew little about Covid itself. Its reproduction and mortality rates were alarming. It had knocked over health services in Lombardy and, later, Madrid. Medics had little idea of how to treat its victims. Public health experts seemed uncertain about how we could stop the contagion. Lockdown made sense, not least because the time it bought us, we hoped, would make future lockdowns unnecessary.
This time round, we know much more about the virus. We know how it spreads, and how we can take precautions to protect ourselves and others. We have the ability to carry out hundreds of thousands of Covid tests every day. And we know much more about how to treat severe cases using the corticosteroids, dexamethasone and hydrocortisone. And yet we are having to lockdown again because we still lack the means to live with the virus and, in attempting to return to normality, we have lost control of the infection rate again.
The failures of our state machinery throughout this crisis are many and by now well-known. Britain was over-prepared for an influenza pandemic and, despite the Sars and Mers outbreaks, under-prepared for a coronavirus. Despite the superior preparedness of the Asian countries, and their greater success in handling Covid, we failed to learn from their experience. Our experts told us not to wear masks, failed to procure enough protective equipment, and built a test-and-trace system that has not worked.
But Government policy has failed, too. For what is the strategic objective that drives ministers’ Covid policy? Is it to maintain economic and social life as far as possible, and to learn to live with the virus? Or is it to suppress the virus as hard as we can, understanding that the cost of doing so will be lost jobs and prosperity?
Of course, ministers will argue that this is a false choice. If the virus gets out of control – as it will right now without further restrictions – the NHS will fall over and the economy will come to a standstill anyway. But this does not excuse the failure to agree a clear strategic objective earlier in the year. And this is the difficult truth: the Government has been unsure of itself from the beginning. Throughout, if you asked them what the strategy should be, different ministers have given different answers.
Of course, some ministers’ views are shaped by the departments they lead. Those responsible for stewarding the country’s economy will prioritise keeping life going, while those responsible for the health service and civil contingencies planning will err towards protecting the public from harm. Ideological beliefs will also play a part, as those with more libertarian tendencies will be more likely to resist, or at least hesitate, before limiting our freedoms.
But the judgment really comes down to what we reasonably believe is likely to be the way out of this crisis. If we conclude that the crisis will be short-lived – a scenario only likely if we have an effective vaccine, administered rapidly and widely, and available almost immediately – then locking down hard and long makes sense. If a vaccine will soon come to the rescue, we just need to shield ourselves from the virus for a period, while keeping businesses afloat and family finances secure, and the fiscal hit will be manageable.
But if it is too much to hope that a vaccine will become available very soon, or that enough people can be vaccinated, or that it will protect enough of us to allow us to live normally once more, we have to think differently about how to handle the crisis. We have to find a way of living with the virus as safely as we can, or, as the Chancellor put it, revealing not very subtly his own view, to “live without fear”.
If this is the judgment, it leads us to a very different approach. It means we have to do everything possible to avoid lurching from one lockdown to the next. It means we need to do far more than we have until now to manage the crisis, and restrict the rate of infection. That means, when this lockdown ends, we need tougher rules – and better compliance and enforcement – on wearing masks, meetings indoors, ventilation within buildings, international travel and contact tracing.
It will require us to sacrifice some liberty, and some convenience, in the short-term to preserve more of our freedom in the long-term. It is, after all, completely perverse that in the name of liberty Britain refused at the start of the crisis to close its borders and grant the state access to personal data, only to impose far worse intrusions into our private lives a few months later.
And the total focus of the state must move to delivering a system of truly mass daily testing. This, far more than a vaccine, seems to be the shortest and most realistic path towards normality. It will, when we get the overall number of infections down again, allow businesses, schools and universities to function, and the working population to go about their lives. It will mean the frail and vulnerable can shield without experiencing loneliness, as friends and family can visit confident they are not carrying the virus. And we know this can be done: China mass-tested all nine million people living in Qingdao in just five days, and 4.7 million in Kashgar in a similar timeframe.
Until we reach this point, however, the same problems will remain. A Government uncertain of its objective will unavoidably find itself uncertain in its policies. But without a successful test-and-trace scheme, and without mass daily testing, as soon as we started to live normally again, an increase in the reproduction rate became inevitable and so, too, did this lockdown.
Now we face restrictions that will surely run beyond December 2 and in all likelihood well into next year. If we want to break the cycle, we need to change the game.