Comment

Political dreams won’t fix this nightmare

The Government needs to react to where we are instead of selling us the vaccine silver bullet

Like many, I experienced more vivid dreams at the height of lockdown. An urge for escapism, combined with anxiety and general dreariness, launched a subconscious rollercoaster. The contrast with the monotonous routines of daily life was as obvious as it was depressing. Yet our politicians are increasingly blurring these lines: mixing up political dreams with Covid reality.

Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, tells us that a vaccine is likely to be ready by next spring. You’d struggle to find anyone who wants to see these efforts fail. A successful vaccine and inoculation roll-out would indeed be the silver bullet to get life back to normal. But a dose of realism is sorely needed: there is no guarantee we’ll have this vaccine in six months. There is no guarantee of a vaccine at all.

We’ve been led astray by optimism once already, when Professor Sarah Gilbert – head of one of the teams developing the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine – claimed there was an 80 per cent chance of delivery by September. Instead, Oxford-AstraZeneca has just restarted its trials, after pausing all testing when a patient became extremely ill. This should remind us of the challenges ahead: the infinite number of variables that could delay a vaccine sign-off. Even if one comes online, its success rate may still leave us far from eradication.

Yet the public is relentlessly sold this vaccine dream, asked to endure severe restrictions on civil liberties just a while longer. This “hoping for the best and preparing for the best” attitude leads to unrealistic policy proposals, such as the increased push to extend the furlough scheme. Not only is it financially unsustainable for the state to fund salaries in perpetuity, it is economically dangerous too.

While the unemployment uptick to 4.1 per cent, published yesterday, was not as abysmal as many predicted, the coming months will be more volatile. Possibly millions of furloughed employees are going to learn, when the scheme ends in October, that their jobs no longer exist. Prolonging furlough would also prolong this painful discovery process.

There is perhaps a case for further subsidies – or even a targeted furlough scheme – for sectors legally forced to stay shut. Social-distancing guidelines make it impossible to crowd people into theatres or venues as before. A specific support scheme would help businesses with no prospect of opening this winter, and encourage Whitehall to do everything possible to keep other industries open: pushing the nuclear lockdown button again would come with a hefty price tag.

But our recovery plan cannot be designed around special circumstances. We must choose realistic options to bring laid-off workers back into employment. This can’t simply mean fast-tracking promises of new construction jobs or apprenticeship guarantees. Market liberalisations and tax cuts are needed, starting with a substantial reduction in employer NICs, to make it cheaper and easier to hire new staff.

Yet the crux of any strategy to keep the economy afloat is a comprehensive test, trace and isolate programme. Without a vaccine, it is our only line ofdefence going into the winter months, as flu symptoms emerge and demand for testing increases, that doesn’t involve a heavy-handed lockdown.

But revelations this week of logjams in laboratories and limited testing availability in hotspot areas underline what we’ve known for months: our systems are still woefully inadequate. Perhaps in the Government’s political dreams, being able to carry out 350,000 tests per day is enough – yet the figure means very little, without capacity to process the results. If building a contact-tracing app were all we needed, we could have started tracing the virus months ago – but it also must work.

The most critical operations for managing the virus appear a mess, and the longer we take to get them in order, the more NHS doctors and nurses with mild symptoms will sit at home, while children with a cough miss school and their parents stay home from work.

In the best-case scenario, we are all vaccinated and back to normal by this time next year. But until then, and quite possibly for long afterwards, we must learn to live with the virus. For the Government, this means reacting to where we are in the Covid crisis, not where politicians would like us to be. Dare to dream.