May 13, 2020

The argument around UK Coronavirus policy looks like it’s over before it even got started. The “hawks” in the Conservative Party might have preferred a more rapid lifting of restrictions, but no-one serious on the Left or Right is contesting the principle of a cautious and phased approach to releasing the lockdown.

The new, ongoing serology study by the ONS and Oxford University — the first phase of which is released tomorrow — will settle the argument even more definitively. It is expected to show that under 10% of the UK population have had Covid-19: still a lot of people, but not enough to be confident about much of an immunity effect. Hopes of widespread symptomless infections and 50% infection rates will be dashed. Ongoing suppression is the plan — Ferguson 1, Giesecke 0.

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Meanwhile all the political pressure on the Prime Minister is pushing him towards a slower and more cautious path towards lifting the lockdown. Even the superlatively tentative first steps he took on Sunday, wading through ifs and buts, were leapt on by the SNP and trade unions as proof of a reckless Tory Party pushing workers into the workplace before it was safe.

As for the voters, polls show that the British public has fully signed up to lockdown life. A survey released at the weekend showed that 73% of Brits think protecting lives should take precedence over the economy, compared to just 49% of Germans and 44% of Swedes. Polling since Sunday‘s announcement suggests that voters are split almost exactly evenly on whether or not even those tiny relaxations were too much, too soon. On that evidence, it looks like the Prime Minister went about as far as he could go.

And yet, despite all this, in time we may find ourselves tacking back to something closer to the Swedish model anyway. Here’s how.

First, public opinion will change, and despite their current popularity, attitudes to the restrictions will eventually sour. While 82% of voters say they could put up with lockdown-style measures until the beginning of June, that drops to 69% for the beginning of July and 44% for the beginning of August. Data from YouGov shows that support for individual lockdown measures has already been drifting down from its peak at the end of March.

Second, the ‘test, track and trace’ strategy could quickly start to feel like fighting an impossible battle. News from abroad has not been encouraging: in recent days, Germany’s R rate has shot up back above 1 after just four days of relaxing measures, and South Korea has had to close its bars and nightclubs after a single man infected over 75 people in one night. You would have to be very optimistic to feel that the UK, with its much larger infection and somewhat patchy record of government technology schemes, is going to find it easier than these countries.

Fighting a losing battle can quickly slide from feeling dispiriting into feeling absurd. The British have a finely developed instinct for nonsense regulation — the contradictions within those announced yesterday are already being openly mocked. The newly-issued guidelines for early-years schools that are supposed to reopen on June 1st state that teachers should “reduce contact between children and staff as far as possible” and children should ideally be kept in “small groups 2m away from each other”. Good luck making that happen in a hall full of five-year-olds who’ve been cooped up at home for two and a half months. A policy that is impossible to fulfil will be seen as a bad policy.

Boris’s off-the-cuff invocation of “good solid British common sense” as a guiding principle hints at the direction of travel. It’s just a question of whether official regulation catches up with what people are already moving to — doing what seems possible or reasonable in each situation. Allowing individual citizens to use common sense when interpreting advice is the basis of the Swedish approach.

In making that determination, people inevitably take into account their own level of risk. So, just as the Government advised the over-70s to take ‘extra caution’ in their observance of the lockdown rules, people who consider themselves or their loved ones particularly vulnerable will continue to be more cautious. Whether or not it is Government-endorsed, we may practically end up with something close to the sort of ‘lanes’ system that Neil Ferguson told me was impossible — the most vulnerable and their carers in the ultra-cautious lane, the rest of us in the ‘doing our best’ lane, and people who already have proven antibodies living life in the fast lane. If you are allowed to quarantine in and out of the country, then there is no reason why you can’t quarantine between lanes: adult siblings could take it in two month shifts to be in the ‘safe lane’ to be able to spend time with elderly parents, for example. People will devise their own regimes.

Perhaps the most important difference between the UK and Sweden regards the level of infection (and by extension deaths) we are theoretically prepared to tolerate going forward. The Swedes openly expect the virus to gradually pass through the population until “collective immunity” is achieved (note the new Left-friendly monicker); the Brits are nominally committed to suppressing it indefinitely. But to what level? Nobody in the British Government has has talked about complete eradication.

The official new ‘Covid alert level’ guidelines are revealing on this question. Level 3 of 5, which means ‘a Covid-19 epidemic is in general circulation’ is to be met with a policy of ‘gradual relaxation of restrictions and social distancing measures’; only if transmission is ‘high or rising exponentially’ will we start ramping restrictions back up. In order to technically qualify as an ‘epidemic’ you should have 40 active cases per 10,000, which according to the latest ONS data we are beneath already, so this suggests that quite a substantial infection level could be tolerated.

Despite the R number going above 1 in Germany this week, and therefore Covid becoming a growing infection, the country has so far not reimposed restrictions. With its vaguely defined threat levels and singular focus on the R number (which is famously hard to calculate and can be misleading) the British Government has allowed itself the same flexibility to adjust the level of infection it is prepared to tolerate based in part on how sustainable (or unpopular) the ongoing restrictions become. Endless on-off changes to the restrictions, with the attendant anxiety and inability to plan forward that would entail, would only chip away at support for the policy, and in the end, the Government. As life starts to get going again and economic green shoots start appearing, the bias will shift towards allowing progress to continue instead of choking it off. And as long as new infections are happening, we will be progressing, however gradually, towards herd — sorry, collective — immunity.

The Swedes have shocked the world with their fatalistic approach to Covid-19. In theory, the Brits have resoundingly rejected it and opted for the opposite approach of active and indefinite suppression. But the bounds of the possible aren’t ultimately decided by politicians, rather by ordinary people: as voter support for the policy, the Government, the Conservative Party and Boris Johnson himself all begin to slide downwards in coming months, we may end up closer to the Swedish approach than anyone now wants to admit. Johan Giesecke may yet have the last laugh.