Why I am opposed to a second lockdown

It made sense in March to introduce draconian measures to deal with a health emergency for which the NHS was unprepared, was not well understood and threatened to overwhelm hospitals. The logic is questionable now

Vince Cable
Tuesday 03 November 2020 17:20
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Johnson says there is ‘light ahead’ as he defends second national lockdown

When Boris Johnson celebrated Halloween by bringing in a national Covid “lockdown” – or “circuit breaker” – his embarrassment at performing a very public climbdown was eased by the widespread support for his actions. Around 80 per cent of the public appear to support the measures, with 15 per cent opposed. I am in the latter camp in the unwanted company of the libertarian “right” of the Tory party and Nigel Farage who interrupted campaigning for Donald Trump to announce the formation of an anti-lockdown party.  

The prime minister is in the awkward position of being supported by the political opposition but vehemently opposed by many on his own side. The rebels enjoy vocal backing by the Daily Mail and the Telegraph. Otherwise there is a “progressive consensus” for national incarceration, with no real end in sight. Labour’s Sir Keir Starmer is able to claim that he supported the “lockdown” recommendations of the government’s scientific advisory committee (Sage) several weeks ago. Labour-run Wales had already implemented a Welsh national lockdown. Other European countries are doing something similar including Angela Merkel’s Germany, commonly regarded as “best in class”, at least in Europe.  

My own scepticism is not based on disrespect for science. The Sage committee has internationally renowned epidemiologists and public health specialists and the advice they give on those subjects is as good as it is possible to get. It is foolish and unhelpful to say, as Iain Duncan Smith, the former Conservative leader, did that he is “taking on the scientists”. But what the Sage committee has no competence to advise on is the policy trade-offs including the economic and other collateral effects of lockdowns; those are legitimate (and hideously difficult) judgements for the government to make, and I believe they are making the wrong call.

I am not a loony libertarian. Personal freedom does not extend to harming – in this case, infecting – other people. Indeed those countries which have dealt best with the pandemic, and have avoided damaging lockdowns, are the East Asian countries which attach great value to social responsibility and decry the self-centred culture of Anglo-Saxon societies. Sweden, the role model for many libertarians, is a social democratic country which relies heavily on solidarity and self-discipline to police social distancing along with some underreported restrictions.

My worry is that the lockdown culture is suborning personal responsibility to state instruction, meaning undue relaxation will inevitably follow the present period of restrictions, as it did (egged on by government) in August. A vicious cycle will surely result.

Moreover this week’s arguments are actually about a lockdown which is anyway only partial. In an effort to save children from further disadvantage, it excludes educational facilities, though these happen to be more powerful vectors of the disease than many of the hospitality businesses which are to be shut down.  

In addition, the debate is confusing two separate issues: whether there should be more severe restrictions and whether they should be applied uniformly in England rather than in a regionally differentiated, tiered system. The latter question has been dressed up in scientific language but is essentially a political choice: whether to have “equality of misery” or a more targeted intervention.

We have finished up with the bizarre anomaly that Nicola Sturgeon, generally seen as a more assiduous enforcer of tough restrictions than Boris Johnson, presides over a tiered approach in Scotland while England has a more drastic set of national measures. One is left wondering why the science is different at the other side of Hadrian’s Wall.

It made sense in March to introduce draconian measures to deal with a health emergency for which the NHS was unprepared, was not well understood and threatened to overwhelm hospitals which lacked protective equipment. Even though infections are now rising rapidly, the hospital system, seven months on, is (and surely should be) in an altogether stronger position to face this long-anticipated second wave. There are supplies of protective equipment for staff. Medicines have been developed to alleviate symptoms of the disease and often avoid the need for ventilators. There has been time to train, organise and recruit staff to best effect.

It is said that a few weeks of relief from the pressure of rising infections is needed to get the test and trace system functioning. But it is far from clear why four weeks will suffice to sort out a regime which has failed lamentably over seven months. There are fundamental problems of design which the current management is not addressing: overcentralisation and failure to use local knowledge; overreliance on unqualified private contractors rather than qualified local authority staff; and a reluctance among the public to cooperate with the trace system if it means enforced isolation and loss of earnings without adequate welfare benefits.

These defects can and should be dealt with but there is no evidence a lockdown will be either a remedy or a catalyst to finding one. Meanwhile, each failure of lockdown imposes a variety of costs: to the businesses affected and their suppliers; to those who lose their jobs; and unquantifiable damage to mental health and morale. There is some evidence to suggest that these costs fall disproportionately on the poorest families and the risk of prolonged unemployment is experienced disproportionately by younger workers.

There is a reluctance by advocates of lockdown to acknowledge that there is a trade-off between “lives saved” and lives lost indirectly from, for example, reduced life expectancy and suicide, both a fall out of the economic costs. The orthodoxy is that economic activity can only be resumed when the virus is eliminated, as in China. But Britain is not remotely equipped to emulate China and lacks the sophisticated test and trace system which is enabling less draconian solutions to work in places like Japan and Korea.  

The uncomfortable fact is that countries like the US and Brazil which have – no doubt for the worst possible political reasons – kept their economies open have so far seen less economic damage than comparable countries which give priority to saving only those lives directly imperilled by the pandemic. They will do better, though, at avoiding “indirect deaths”.

As an economist, I am now most concerned that economic policy must be tilted to minimise the costs of both national and regional lockdowns. As I argued in my column two weeks ago, chancellor Rishi Sunak, who did everything right in the spring, is now in danger of reverting to financially conservative Treasury orthodoxy at exactly the wrong time. There is an urgent need to boost the generosity of universal credit to help the growing numbers in poverty and to boost demand. This is the time to embark on expansive public works, retraining and other initiatives to absorb the millions who will be out of work once the temporarily extended furlough has expired. Yet all we see is foot-dragging.

The long-term political verdict on Boris Johnson’s U-turn is unlikely to be settled in the House of Commons tomorrow (the government will have a big majority) but will be heavily influenced by what happens in the US. If Trump clings on against the odds, it will be seen as a vindication of putting the economy (and golf) ahead of fighting the disease. If Biden wins, the new international consensus will be: safety first; stay at home; “save lives”. But there will be a huge cost yet to be counted.

Sir Vince Cable is the former leader of the Liberal Democrats and served as secretary of state for business, innovation and skills from 2010 to 2015

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