Rarely can a single week have so changed our way of life and our prospects, at least in the immediate future. Only seven days ago people were being asked to be careful, take precautions, wash their hands but carry on with life largely as usual. Now ordinary life is suspended and it could get far tougher before it gets better. So how do you think we are coping?
This sudden change in the very fabric of our days has been brought about by a radical shift in the government’s approach to the coronavirus pandemic. The government doesn’t quite admit it’s changed tack but that’s what has happened and, to be fair to it, it’s done so in response to strikingly altered advice from the scientists and medical experts on whom it necessarily depends.
Until as recently as Monday those experts believed we could mitigate the pandemic, meaning we could slow its spread, pushing the peak into the summer when the health service would be better able to cope. It would even be quite a good thing, the government’s chief scientific advisor, Sir Patrick Vallance, said, if most of the healthy population contracted a dose because not only would they quickly recover but in the process they would develop immunity when the virus returned (as it will). ‘Herd immunity’ it was called.
Then the experts, especially those at Imperial College, London, looked at their models and saw disaster looming. The evidence of Italy, three or four weeks ahead of us, suggested the NHS would face demands on its critical beds from those suffering severely from the virus that was eight times the capacity it has available. And the ‘mitigation strategy’ would leave around 250,000 dead in the United Kingdom. Not only was such a prospect appalling in itself but the government saw that it was politically impossible, especially when other countries, notably China, Italy, France and Spain, were pursuing a very different strategy and one which held out the hope of many fewer deaths.
So on Monday afternoon the Prime Minister announced a completely new approach. ‘Mitigation’ was out and ‘suppression’ was in. Forget ‘herd immunity’: the plan now was to try stop as many people as possible from contracting the virus in the first place, ease pressure on the NHS’s critical beds and reduce the likely death toll to the tens of thousands. As Mr Johnson was to put it on Thursday, the hope was to send the virus ‘packing’ within three months or so.
The effect of this radical change of approach has been to transform our daily life out of recognition within a week. Schools are closing, planes are grounded, even the churches have closed for business. We’re urged to work at home if we can, to stop going to pubs, restaurants and theatres and to end all social contact with others except where absolutely necessary – in effect to stay put, batten down the hatches and wait till the crisis is over. None of us, not even those who lived through the Second World War, has experienced anything like it. To most of us it seems totally unreal; to some, even mad.
So how are we coping? In the first place, how do you think the government is coping? One of the striking things is that the familiar, combative nature of politics has largely been suspended. It’s not just that the green benches of the House of Commons are sparsely filled, to set an example of the ‘social distancing’ we are all urged to follow to halt the spread of the virus. It’s more that there seems to be a general recognition that a national emergency is no time for political point-scoring. Rather it’s the job of opposition politicians and the government’s own backbenchers to keep ministers up to the mark and to make sure they’re paying attention to aspects of the crisis it would be easy, in its sheer overwhelming magnitude, for them to overlook.
How are they doing? In very broad terms they face three enormous challenges: the purely medical crisis with its potential to submerge the health service; the economic consequences of a virtual shutdown of the British economy; and the communications challenge – giving the public a clear and dependable lead and attempting drastically to change our behaviour by persuasion not coercion.
The response to the virus itself has required massive improvisation in the NHS. Hospitals, already overstretched, are having to create space for the expected influx of thousands of coronavirus sufferers, many of whom will need intensive care. The government is trying to clear wards of patients who no longer need medical care by providing extra funds (long overdue, many would say) to local authorities so that they can provide social care for them to be looked after outside hospital. Retired doctors and nurses are being urged to return to work ‘for the duration’ (as they used to say in the War) and student doctors are being recruited to help before they are fully qualified. Industry is being urged to stop making widgets and start making ventilators, just as there was a massive shift to the production of munitions during the world wars. In short, it’s all hands to the pump.
Meanwhile it’s hoped science will come to the rescue. A vaccination is the only long-term safeguard against the inevitable return of the virus (all the more necessary now that the ‘herd immunity’ approach has been abandoned, leaving more vulnerable to its return), but this isn’t imminent. More immediately, there’s hope that a new test for the virus, checking for those who have already had it and so become immune (not all those who catch it show symptoms), will be available soon, enabling those who test positive to return to normal life without endangering others or themselves.
As for the economy, the shift of strategy in dealing with the virus has had massive implications for government policy. It’s only a week ago I was writing about Rishi Sunak’s first Budget. That’s already history, or for the birds depending on your turn of phrase. The crisis has the potential for having a much more devastating effect on the economy and longer-term implications for government policy than the financial crash of 2007/08. That was ‘just’ a banking crisis, one that had to be prevented from strangling the economy through shortage of money and credit. Dealing with that cost enough in terms of lost output and soaring government debt, but this one could be worse for the simple reason that, unlike last time, the economy has to go into lockdown for a while in order to stop the spread of the virus.
The challenge here is to ensure that businesses and jobs are not permanently destroyed leaving nothing on which to build when the crisis has passed. That involves the government digging deep, deep into its pockets to keep businesses that temporarily can’t do any business in business, and workers who can’t work with cash to keep them afloat. Mr Sunak, in almost daily policy developments, has shown he is prepared to do just that – to do ‘whatever it takes’ in the government’s mantra – but he is having to borrow massively to do so. That’s why you don’t need to bother to read his Budget any more. But it’s also why, when this crisis is over, the government will face, just as its predecessors did after the War, a hugely inflated debt burden which it will have to get down. Anyone who thinks the era of austerity is over ain’t seen nothing yet: coronavirus will see to that.
And then there’s the government’s communications task. Even its friends say it didn’t get off to a good start, with too much dependence on off-the-record briefing to selected journalists and then the sudden change of tack last Monday. Now, however, things have improved with daily press conferences and a consistent line (at least since Monday) being pursued. What makes communication so important is that the government is, unlike other countries such as China or France, depending on persuasion rather than coercion to get us to change our behaviour.
That makes trust in what the government is saying vital because if we don’t trust them we won’t do what they want us to do. The government has tried to build this trust by claiming that it’s not really they who are doing the talking but that they are, as it were, the ventriloquist’s dummy for the scientists and medical experts, well known to be more trusted than politicians. Even so, calibrating message with desired response is a difficult trick to pull off. If the message is too stark, people will panic; if it’s not firm enough, people will shrug and carry on regardless. Are they getting this right?
And there’s perhaps a question for us journalists too here: are we getting it right? Are we reporting responsibly or are we still adopting the old journalistic trick, to ‘simplify then exaggerate’ for the sake of a good story? And what about social media?
In the end what really matters is how we, the public, are responding? Or to put it another way: do you think the public is being responsible? The sight of supermarket shelves being swept empty in minutes suggests we’re not (and why loo rolls?). On the other hand when no one knows what’s down the pike (and the turnaround in the last week shows just how much we don’t know that), it seems sensible for people individually to prepare for the worst. The issue, of course, is that what’s good for individuals in these circumstances isn’t good for the public as a whole. We’ve lived for a long time in a society dominated, many would argue, by the selfish ethos of ‘every man for himself’. Now we’re being asked to live according to a very different code: ‘everyone needs to look out for everyone else’. Are we managing the transition?
Talk to anyone among the very old -- those who lived as young adults in the Second World War -- and they’ll tell you that the abiding spirit of the time was togetherness. That’s what we need now but the horrible irony of our current predicament is that that’s precisely what we cannot, physically, afford. We cannot all get together for a laugh, even in an air raid shelter.
So how are you coping? How are you managing not going to work? How do you view having the kids at home from next week? Is the paramount need for social distancing, from not seeing your mates and staying put at home, starting to drive you stir crazy? And how long do you think you can keep it up before you go really crazy?
At all levels there is a lot of ‘coping’ needed to see us through this crisis. How do you think we are doing?
Let us know.