The lockdown restrictions are about to be eased in England; in other words, for most of the British population, even though the other three administrations in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast are more cautious. Boris Johnson’s government is presenting a very positive picture to justify this, but is it accurate?
Starting with the global situation, the World Health Organization view is that we are not even half-way through the pandemic. It is accelerating in many parts of the world, out of control in Brazil and parts of the US, and causing huge concern in India and elsewhere.
The size of the pool of infection is unknown in most countries. Just as worrying are the repeated outbreaks after lockdowns and quarantines have been eased: the latest is Australia, where 300,000 people have had to be isolated in 36 Melbourne suburbs.
Beyond these immediate concerns are three long-term problems. First, the medical questions: how long can asymptomatic carriers remain infectious? Does COVID-19 affect people’s long-term health? How does it affect organs other than the lungs and heart, and, perhaps most significant of all, what are its neurological effects?
Secondly, many economies follow a free-market shareholder-driven norm with an emphasis on growth and therefore a strong dislike of lockdowns and quarantines. Emergency economic support is seen as no more than that – a very short-term diversion from the neoliberal path. When it comes to COVID-19, economy trumps health.
Finally, if the pandemic is not being brought under control then blame must be diverted away from those in power. Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, pretends that it isn’t happening or is no worse than flu. Donald Trump blames China and even Democrat-controlled states that, he claims, allowed a pool of viruses to accumulate early on.
Freedom and health
England under Johnson, meanwhile, is heading for ‘independence day’, 4 July, despite repeated warnings that the pool of infection is too large. The lockdown war has been played out in the columns of The Daily Telegraph and elsewhere, with the anti-lockdown forces winning, even though the city of Leicester has already had to go back into full lockdown and others may soon follow.
As with Bolsonaro and Trump, scapegoats have to be identified: for Johnson’s government these include the civil service as a whole and the public health system in particular. He even tries to castigate the opposition Labour Party for being too oppositional.
Can easing the lockdown work? Start by looking at the government’s performance so far. Before the pandemic the UK claimed to be world-class in its pandemic readiness. On paper, the 2018 ‘UK Biological Security Strategy’ certainly looked good – but it was not actually implemented, and the country is now the worst affected in Europe.
Ever since January the handling of the pandemic has been a political disaster, starting with the failure to emulate the rapid and effective actions of several of China’s near neighbours such as South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam and Thailand.
Then came the tardiness of initial responses: too few ventilators, lack of personal protection equipment and severe overburdening of under-prepared care homes. This has been followed by persistently inadequate test-and-trace systems, and opacity, especially in communicating with local health professionals.
Back in February Johnson made it abundantly clear that the economy came first. He allowed three huge sporting events to go ahead just before lockdown. Then one of his key advisors broke the spirit if not the letter of the lockdown regulations.
Easing the lockdown might work if very high standards of personal behaviour are maintained. But that is expecting a great deal, especially among younger people who have been cooped up for far longer than should have been necessary. It also requires a fully operational, rapid and effective test-and-trace system that is far from what now exists, full transparency and, above all, a government that leads by example.
All that is missing and we will be remarkably lucky if things work out as hoped. Instead it is wise to expect a slow increase in infections through August accelerating into the autumn and winter when schools are fully functioning, and then repeated local and regional lockdowns and consequent economic damage through the winter. Within a year there is a reasonable chance that vaccines and antivirals will become available and the pandemic will finally recede. But it will leave a bitter aftermath of economic and social damage.
Such a grim prognosis can be avoided, especially as so many people at almost all levels of organisation below central government are doing such good work. It will, though, require constant and intense pressure on Johnson and his advisors from parliamentary opposition, local politicians, health professionals and, above all, people right across the community. That will be more likely if we face up to the scale of the problem and refrain, at least in the short term, from believing almost anything this dysfunctional government says.