April 9, 2020

The Prime Minister is still in intensive care, cabinet ministers and the heir to the throne have been infected and we just suffered the worst-ever daily death count from Covid-19. As we head into a torturously sunny Easter weekend, there seems to be no strategy for getting out of lockdown: immunity testing that once was promised ‘within days’ is going nowhere, a vaccine is still 18 months away, and all we expect to hear from the Government this afternoon is that restrictions will be extended to the end of the month. You could be forgiven for feeling like there is no end in sight.

Yet there’s another story going on at the same time.

Alongside these gloomy developments, there has been, this week, a significant shift in the political conversation that could trigger a domino effect towards a sooner — rather than later — exit from lockdown.

To those people who say ‘this isn’t about politics, it’s about saving lives,’ I’d say that you would struggle to find a better definition of a political question than how we run our society in the face of mortal threats, competing interests and imperfect information. It’s what politics is there to resolve.

So far, public opinion has been remarkably supportive of the stringent lockdown restrictions, with somewhere between 89% and 94% of people broadly in favour. These are big numbers, but they can move quickly — the percentage of people who think the threat is ‘not being taken seriously enough’ slumped from 87% to 52% over the past week.

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Millions of people are already finding it very hard: 38% report sleeping badly, 35% are eating badly and alcohol sales have spiked. The fascinating YouGov national mood tracker — perhaps more revealing for not asking directly about the virus — shows that people are less happy than any time on record, slightly less scared than the previous week (down 2% to 34%) but dramatically more likely to feel bored (up to 34% from 19%).

Boredom isn’t something to be dismissed as a luxury problem — it is profound and works against the creativity of the human spirit. In combination with economic anxiety, it can turn nasty. The Government will be looking at similar numbers and will be aware that, as the economic disaster becomes clearer, the small percentage of active ‘coronasceptics’ who think too much fuss is being made (currently at around 14%) is only likely to go in one direction.

Among the British commentariat — despite Polly Toynbee’s attempt to frame the debate as yet another culture war between virtuous Left and cynical Right — reactions to the virus and ensuing lockdown have scattered normal alliances and are changing every day. Parts of both the authoritarian Right and old-Left initially welcomed the lockdown as proof of the need for strong government and solidarity, while an initial protest cast of contrarians and libertarians has now been swelled by mainstream Remainer liberals such as Matthew Parris, Nick Boles and Andrew Adonis in calling for a shift to more targeted confinement. New Labour leader Keir Starmer’s new focus on the ‘need for an exit strategy’, and the intervention by SAGE advisor Graham Medley describing the lockdown as a choice between protecting the vulnerable and harming children only serve to hasten this shift of perspective.

In the US, there is a lively debate going on behind closed doors among top Democrats as to the line Joe Biden should take, with coronabulls and coronabears taking divergent views. And on the Republican side, influential Fox News Anchor Tucker Carlson (credited with having changed Donald Trump’s mind as to the seriousness of the epidemic) has within the past week changed his tune completely. He now devotes whole segments of his nightly show to pointing out how the IHME models on which much of the US policy response was based were way too pessimistic, and describes the nearly 10m Americans newly unemployed as “a far bigger disaster than the virus by any measure”. The President will no doubt be listening.

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As to the various scientists and experts, as it becomes clear that they don’t agree among themselves, they are losing the aura of infallibility that initially shrouded them in this crisis. A Reuters report into failings among the British advisors has been widely shared; the mantra of ‘deferring to the science’ no longer silences debate.

First the Deputy Chief Medical Officer told us that wearing masks was “quite a bad idea” and counterproductive, now the CDC in America says that even a home-made mask is better than nothing; initially it was suggested the virus didn’t last very long outdoors, now sunbathing is banned. The actual fatality rate of the virus remains shrouded in mystery; the infamous Imperial College model forecasting the loss of 500,000 lives in the UK without drastic action will likely never be proven either way but is publicly mocked by the Swedish scientific team. Without unassailable facts you get… politics.

When the scientific estimates do change, they tend to get more optimistic. The Health Secretary has revised down the number of additional ventilators he projects will be needed in the UK from 30,000 to 18,000 and now closer to 13,500. The official IHME models in the US were bleak indeed; but even in New York, the state hardest hit, the model was overly pessimistic in terms of numbers of hospitalisations and beds needed by a factor of four or five. The organisation then released a drastically revised model on Tuesday of this week, changing the total number of ICU beds the US would need at peak down to 141,000 from 263,000, and the number of ventilators needed down to 19,000 from 32,000. That’s a cut of more than 40% since the previous iteration three days earlier, which they put down to ‘more up to date data’.

Together with the ‘flattening’ of the outbreaks in major European countries and the impact of the government economic interventions, this has already led to a major rally in the markets, as investors start to feel more confident. This week, Austria, Denmark, Norway and the Czech Republic have all moved to relax their quarantines.

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As long as neither the UK nor the US is yet “at the peak,” and the grim daily number of deaths is still growing, any optimism may still feel perilously premature; but when we officially move past that peak (predicted for between a week and ten days from today) and start descending the other side, the atmosphere will start to feel very different. Companies will start to plan ahead, and the public may start relaxing their quarantine arrangements regardless of the official guidance.

When it eventually does arrive, widespread antibody testing will have its own impact — on attitudes as well as health outcomes. Whether the percentage of people who have already had the virus is revealed to be closer to the 2.7% that Professor Ferguson estimates or the 50% that the Oxford University model speculated, the confirmation that millions of Britons have been through it already will surely affect the narrative. It will make an indiscriminate lockdown harder to sustain.

And if those ‘immunity wristbands’ that Matt Hancock has discussed are even possible, while allowing people who have already had Covid-19 a return to normal life they would make any ongoing lockdown even harder. The chances of persuading healthy 20-somethings to continue being careful to avoid catching a virus that they know is highly unlikely to harm them, when their friends who have already had it are rewarded with membership of a new liberated elite, seem slim to say the least. It makes today’s paper from Warwick University making ‘the case for releasing the young’ seem even more persuasive.

The initial length of lockdown discussed within Number 10 was 7 weeks, which would have taken us to May 11th; since then, the trajectory of the virus has been less bad than feared, but on the other hand the Prime Minister’s health will naturally make extreme caution even more likely. It is now expected that the restrictions will be extended at least to the end of the month, but bringing some schools back before then is being actively discussed.

Scientists might still ruminate about five-month-long lockdowns and talk of on-off restrictions lasting a year or 18 months, but real-world political factors make this kind of extended lockdown very hard to imagine. Despite the Government’s omertà on the subject, whether it begins by bringing back some schools or by phasing in a more targeted confinement of only the elderly and vulnerable, there will have to be a move much sooner than that.

And once the dam breaks and the force of life is released, it won’t be easy to lock back up.

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