Any general who goes into battle without a plan is doomed to fail.
Any general who sticks to his plan is doomed to fail.
Attributed to Napoleon
In its approach to tackling the coronavirus, the UK government has finally – following the Imperial College report – moved away from the herd-immunity or laissez-faire strategy.
It is not yet clear which of the alternative strategies they intend to follow. And, because of the sudden shift, they have not thought through the practical implications of delivering the new strategy. And, of course, they have given no indication of any longer-term thinking.
What should they be doing?
They should commit to beating the virus and building a better world:
- they should immediately and fully commit to the lockdown and eliminate strategy, and put in place the social and economic protections needed to make it possible to follow the best medical advice;
- they should develop a proactive rebound strategy so that once the lockdown ends economic activity can pick up rapidly and safely; and
- Rather than going back to ‘business as usual’ – which was failing on many dimensions – they should build a better world.
Commit Immediately and Fully to Lockdown and Eliminate
Our assessment – which is consistent with the Imperial College report – of the strategies open to the government in tackling the coronavirus showed clearly that, while no strategy is perfect, the lockdown and eliminate strategy (which every other country is following) is the way to go.
The laissez-faire strategy would lead to up to 600,000 needless deaths in the UK. The intermediate strategies: isolate the vulnerable; and retard for treatment also have serious flaws. And while the lockdown and eliminate strategy is enormously disruptive – by design – as other countries have shown, it can save huge numbers of lives.
The government of the UK has not yet explicitly committed to the lockdown and eliminate strategy; it is still not clear whether they are intending to follow one of the intermediate strategies. Mr Johnson’s first step should be to make this clear immediately, both so that the public understand what is going on and so that those at or near the front line of medical treatment or of other forms of critical national infrastructure can plan appropriately. From the medical perspective, for example, lockdown and eliminate requires less in the way of intensive care (though still far more than we are used to), but far more in the way of testing, tracing and elimination than the other strategies. Clarity is essential for planning.
And because this strategy is so disruptive, he needs to protect people and businesses against the effects of that disruption. Specifically, what we don’t want to see is that the lockdown produces starvation, homelessness joblessness, bankruptcy of otherwise viable businesses, or panic and hoarding leading to shortages of essential supplies. So Mr Johnson needs to ensure protection for people and businesses to prevent these things.
In practice, that will imply some form of income support and employment protection – adequate to enable people to stop work (if they cannot work from home, and are not part of the critical national infrastructure) without risk of starving, being unable to heat their houses, being evicted or being made unemployed. The simplest, and probably best, form of such support would be a temporary universal basic income. If the government does not wish to do that, then they must make sure they leave no holes in their package of support measures.
Similarly, businesses – particularly small businesses many of which do not form part of critical national infrastructure – need to be protected from the economic consequences of the huge reduction in demand. They need support to stay in business; but also support to maintain capacity so that when the lockdown ends, they are in a position to rebound.
And we can already see that certain essentials are being hoarded – out of fear – which means that some people have bought more than they will in fact need while others are already going short. We need the government to introduce some form of rationing.
All these things go very much against the grain of letting markets solve every problem, but they are essential in a situation like this.
Develop A Proactive Rebound Strategy
An aggressive lockdown has the benefit of speed and paves the way for a rapid rebound. But there are risks – both medical and economic – during the rebound period.
The medical risk, of course, is of a second wave of infection. Ending lockdown therefore does not mean ending all restrictions, and it certainly does not mean standing-down testing, tracing, tracking and isolation capabilities. In fact, it needs to be preparing to do these things on an industrial scale if it wants to end lockdown safely. And since not all countries are at the same stage, even once the UK is clear that it has successfully eliminated the virus, serious travel restrictions and continued quarantining are likely to remain necessary.
The economic risk is of widespread bankruptcies just as demand is beginning to return. For that reason, continued but lower level and more targeted support for people and businesses will be needed.
Build A Better World
Finally, we should not forget that even before the coronavirus struck, the UK faced enormous challenges including the climate emergency and mass impoverishment. We must not go back to business as usual but should consciously set out to create a better world. If we get it right, by 2050, everyone, particularly the poorest, should be significantly better off than today. In fact, five, relatively straightforward steps will ensure that we do create a far better world.
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