Comment

Our ship of fools sails on, from one destructive lockdown to the next

In a crisis, you need cool heads, willing to make unpopular decisions. We seem to have neither

Another momentous week, in which, never mind the drama on the other side of the pond, the sound of the UK Government repeatedly shooting itself in the foot over Covid refused to go away. Relatively early in the pandemic, I used the image of Plato’s “ship of fools” – in which any knowledge of the seas is regarded as automatic disqualification for the position of captain – to characterise the Government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Now ten months into the outbreak, we are no nearer the measured, balanced and economically pragmatic approach to the disease we need.

Policy seems instead to be entirely in the grip of a small cluster of epidemiologists, who naturally see suppression and eradication of the virus as the only way forward, all other considerations being irrelevant to their science.

Since we now know that complete eradication is extremely unlikely in any foreseeable future, it is an approach that condemns us to one lockdown after another, and therefore permanent harm to living standards, well-being and economic growth. This is not remotely a tolerable state of affairs, let alone a sustainable one.

In the early stages of the pandemic the Government self evidently reacted too slowly. We now have the opposite problem of seemingly unjustified over-reaction.

From the start it has been one fiasco after another, whether it be the crisis of infection in care homes, failure to control the spread of the disease in hospitals, the extraordinary incompetence on display in getting a supposedly “world beating” system of test, track and isolate up and running, the buck passing to officials, the attempt to deflect blame by announcing the abolition of Public Health England, or the obvious failure to prepare adequately for a likely second wave.

But even by these lamentably poor standards, inability to present reliable data backing the case for a second lockdown plumbs new depths of ineptitude. If you are going to make “following the science” your lodestar, you have to make pretty damn sure that data is robust and not open to challenge.

Instead, the Government’s scientific advisers have found themselves repeatedly having to backpedal on the claims being made for death rates and hospitalisations.

Even if broadly right in the thrust of what they are saying, their credibility has been shot to bits. Attention to detail and hard evidence is one of the hallmarks of good science, but it’s not been there.

As it is, the latest Office for National Statistics survey shows infections in England stabilising even before we went into renewed lockdown. That’s obviously good news, but it also seems to indicate that the lockdown-lite regional approach to the second wave had been working.

By hugging the European consensus, and adopting a science first approach to the pandemic, the Government has painted itself into a corner from which it is finding it virtually impossible to emerge.

Number 10 had the chance over the summer, when the pandemic subsided, to recalibrate and take on board a broader range of advice that would have allowed it to more properly weigh the costs of lockdown in the balance, but it failed to take it.

Instead, the supposed wisdom of the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) continues to rule the roost, unmitigated by rational economic and sociological counter arguments.

In a speech a couple of months back, Gus O’Donnell, former Cabinet Secretary, observed that “without a clear strategy, strong leadership and the use of good evidence from a range of human sciences, there is a growing risk that our efforts to emerge from this pandemic will be protracted and extremely costly”.

Little has happened since to assuage these concerns.

Lord O’Donnell’s diagnosis – that the Government has allowed itself to be swayed by inadequate data; that it has not taken proper account of the impact of its response on well-being; that it has deferred too much to the medical science and taken too little account of a range of human sciences; and that there has been weak strategy and leadership, together with a tendency to over promise and under-deliver, thereby reducing confidence in government – has gone largely ignored.

As if to make matters worse, we have the entirely ridiculous and illogical promise from the Prime Minister that the new lockdown will end on December 2, come what may. A lockdown justified on the basis that the NHS is in danger of being overwhelmed and is therefore to end by a set date even if the NHS is closer to being overwhelmed by then than it is now.

What sort of sense does that make? If what the Prime Minister is saying is that he is only going to be guided by the science for another month, and then stuff the scientists, then he might as well grasp the nettle now.

As I say, the PM needs urgently to expand his gene pool of advisers. Lord O’Donnell, and perhaps Mark Carney, former Governor of the Bank of England and already an adviser on climate change, would make a good starting point.

The Government would also do well to add some seasoned counsel from the field of business and finance. Sir Roger Carr, chairman of BAE Systems, Sir Howard Davies, chairman of NatWest Group, Sir John Kingman, chairman of Legal & General, and Lord Rose, chairman of Ocado, all make obvious choices.

If once having been a Remainer is still thought immediately to disqualify you from any advisory role within the nest of fanatics, ideologues and second raters that run the country, Brexit supporting Sir James Dyson and JCB’s Lord Bamford, or even Wetherspoon’s Tim Martin, would provide an equally good counterweight to the epidemiologists.

We are in the middle of a national emergency; if the advice is one sided and not terribly good, it needs to be moderated.

“When the facts change, I change my mind, what do you do Sir?” seemed to be what Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor was saying last week (after John Maynard Keynes) when, at vast further cost to the taxpayer, he extended the jobs furlough scheme until the end of March next year.

I suppose this was unavoidable given renewed lockdown, even if as Paul Johnson, head of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, has argued, the scheme is not as well targeted as it ought to be.

Alarmingly, however, it seems to signal that some form of lockdown will be ongoing at least until next spring.

Having repeatedly been left trying to keep up with events, the Chancellor is determined not to be caught off guard again.

Yet it also seems symptomatic of a worrying loss of nerve. Sunak was supposed to be the voice of economic reason in the Cabinet, battling the blinkered thinking of the lockdown hardliners. But he too has been sucked into the “save our NHS” mire.

His star seems to be falling almost as rapidly as that of Boris Johnson. In a crisis, you need cool heads, willing to make unpopular decisions. We seem to have neither.