Comment

It's time to go for growth before Covid destroys the economy

Britain no longer has a Covid-free status to protect and therefore has far less to risk from opening up - but a great deal to gain

It is official. The UK has ended up in a super-league of its own, with the highest level of excess deaths in Europe and the deepest economic contraction in Europe as well. 

This is the worst failure of British state policy in my lifetime, a domestic Suez, for which nobody has yet been held to account.

Nevertheless, we cannot purge the original sin of early March by draconian purity five months later. The welfare costs of total war against Covid-19 arguably exceed the welfare benefits already. Every week shifts the calculus further. We probably reached the crossover point in July.  

The picture now bears little resemblance to the frightening drama five months ago. Survival rates have vastly improved. We know more about natural immunity. Society is much more careful. We are closer to partial herd immunity among that crucial bloc of the population in face-to-face jobs and therefore most likely to spread the virus.   

Proper statecraft at this juncture is to dial down the campaign and switch to a light-touch mitigation strategy - that is to say the policy briefly pursued at the outset of this Calvary when the time was wrong and the consequences calamitous. 

The 20.4pc drop in GDP over the second quarter looks worse than it really is in the European beauty contest because the UK went into the storm later and did not catch so much of the June rebound. It is still dire. 

Like most readers, I have been watching the evolving equation of Covid-19 closely. What has brought matters to a head is the Treasury’s decision to shut down emergency relief at the end of October. The UK will be the only G7 country to go cold turkey before it is out of economic crisis. If that is the policy, this Government cannot legitimately shut parts of the productive system by fiat.

Britain’s pandemic strategy has lurched from paralysed fatalism to what seems at times to be a zero-case policy, as if the UK were like pristine New Zealand. This has become entrenched in a rigid, centralised apparatus that has lost the plot.

“The government has messed up both ends of the epidemic. It acted too slowly, and feebly, at the start. And stretched out the pain unnecessarily at the end. They seem to lack any nuance,” says a cardiologist friend handling Covid cases at a London hospital. 

His top gripe is that NHS management - who let the health system become the chief vector of transmission in March - is now so focused on eliminating Covid that person-to-person diagnosis of other diseases has stopped, to the net detriment of overall health.  

“The reality, which they seem not to understand, is that we don’t have some virgin population. We’ve already been pole-axed, and as a result, it’s basically over. What happened in places such as London won’t be repeated, ever,” he says. Many others have reached the same conclusion.  

“The ideology of zero risk is dangerous,” says Yonathan Freund, a Sorbonne professor and Editor of the European Journal of Emergency Medicine, who supported the original lockdown in France. “The consequences of this disease for the general population will never be the same again.”

The UK is not alone in swinging from inaction to overdrive. France is mandating masks outdoors (pointlessly), after having first declared masks indoors to be useless. It is becoming surreal. 

My cardiologist friend was a hardliner in the first weeks of the pandemic, warning that the UK had failed to heed the lessons of Korea, Iran, and Lombardy and was allowing the virus spin out of control.

Now he and many of his front-line colleagues are on the other side of the argument. “I would keep face masks, protect the care homes, continue to ban mass gatherings, and probably be strict with pubs, but, aside from that, I would basically return to normal,” he says.

Contact tracing should continue - or rather start in earnest, after a rolling shambles - and should preferably be left to local authorities with German follow-up routines rather than be left to the inertia of Serco. 

In a sense there is much to celebrate. The fatality rate of intensive care patients in the NHS dropped from 42pc in early April to nearer 20pc by mid-July, thanks to dexamethasone, anticoagulants, earlier use of oxygen, and a steep learning-curve at the clinical front-line. 

A worldwide meta-study published in Anaesthesia had a different figure, down from 60pc to 42pc but the cut-off date was the end of May. There have been steady gains since then. 

The mounting evidence from T cell and modelling studies is that large numbers of people may have immunity despite not yielding detectable antibodies. Many may have some degree of underlying protection, perhaps as cross-immunity from earlier coronavirus colds, or because of genetic variability. They are the "dark matter" cohort. 

I recognise that we do not have all the facts (when does one ever?). We don’t know the severity of "long Covid" pathologies. Nasty surprises keep cropping up. Young people who seemed to brush off the virus at first may suffer lasting lung, heart, and organ damage.   

A Lancet comment last week by Isabella Eckerle and Benjamin Meyer from the Geneva Centre for Emerging Viral Diseases denounced the pursuit of herd immunity through natural infection as both “highly unethical” and “unachievable”.  They warn of a second wave and a return to a full-blown pandemic if measures are lifted. 

Such counsel should not be dismissed lightly. But it is also clear that the scientific world is as polarised as everybody else. One must choose.

If a vaccine were imminent, the balance of advantage would lie with draconian virus control. But even Vladimir Putin’s Sputnik stunt could not promise better than January. We may have to wait seven months or more for a credible vaccine at scale.

Some will claim that easing restrictions today implies that the lockdown was unnecessary in March. It is a sterile debate. Wherever governments refused to act - including Sweden - people took matters into their own hands and locked themselves down - but only after avoidable damage was done.

You can see in mobility data that Swedes persisted with social distancing for several weeks after Italians returned to something nearer life as normal. The Swedish economy contracted by 8.6pc in the second quarter, compared to 8.2pc in Germany (dream figures by UK standards), but Sweden has almost five times as many excess deaths. There was no trade-off to be had in March.

The global picture is clear enough: the countries with the lowest "misery index" - the lowest excess deaths and the lowest GDP fall combined - are those that locked down early, mobilised on  "test, trace, isolate" and shielded their doctors, nurses, and care homes rigorously. Will these prove to be Pyrrhic victories, a misreading of the pandemic marathon? No, but these winners have their own hard choices to make in phase two.

Britain no longer has a Covid-free status to protect and therefore has a cruel advantage over the next few months. It is further along this course than most OECD states. It has less to risk from opening up, and much to gain. So perhaps  we should call it a day and go for growth before we do lasting structural damage to the British economy and to British society.