It is time to end the war on Covid. Fail­ing to lift re­stric­tions is un­nec­es­sar­ily dam­ag­ing the economy

‘Proper state­craft at this junc­ture is to dial down the cam­paign and switch to a light­touch mit­i­ga­tion strat­egy’

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Coronaviru­s: Focus On The Economy - AM­BROSE EVANSPRITC­HARD

It is of­fi­cial. The UK has ended up in a su­per league of its own, with the high­est level of ex­cess deaths in Europe and the deep­est eco­nomic con­trac­tion at the same time.

It is the worst fail­ure of Bri­tish state pol­icy in my life­time, a do­mes­tic Suez, for which no­body has yet been held to ac­count.

But we can­not purge the Orig­i­nal Sin of early March by dra­co­nian pu­rity five months later. The wel­fare costs of to­tal war against Covid-19 ar­guably ex­ceed the wel­fare ben­e­fits al­ready. Every week shifts the cal­cu­lus fur­ther. We prob­a­bly reached the cross­over point in July.

The pic­ture to­day bears lit­tle re­sem­blance to the fright­en­ing drama five months ago. Sur­vival rates have vastly im­proved. So­ci­ety is much more care­ful. We are closer to par­tial herd im­mu­nity among that cru­cial bloc of the pop­u­la­tion in face-to-face jobs, and there­fore most likely to spread the virus.

Proper state­craft at this junc­ture is to dial down the cam­paign and switch to a light-touch mit­i­ga­tion strat­egy, that is to say the pol­icy briefly pur­sued at the out­set of this Calvary when the time was wrong and the con­se­quences calami­tous.

The 20.4pc drop in GDP over the sec­ond quar­ter looks worse than it re­ally is in the Euro­pean beauty contest be­cause the UK went into the storm later and did not catch so much of the June re­bound. It is still dire.

Like most read­ers, I have been watch­ing the evolv­ing equa­tion of Covid-19 closely. What has brought mat­ters to a head is the Trea­sury’s de­ci­sion to shut down emer­gency re­lief at the end of Oc­to­ber. The UK will be the only G7 coun­try to go cold turkey be­fore it is out of eco­nomic cri­sis. If that is the pol­icy, this Gov­ern­ment can­not le­git­i­mately shut parts of the pro­duc­tive sys­tem by fiat.

Bri­tain’s pan­demic strat­egy has lurched from paral­ysed fa­tal­ism to what seems at times to be a zero-case pol­icy, as if the UK were like pris­tine New Zealand. This has be­come en­trenched in a rigid, cen­tralised ap­pa­ra­tus that has lost the plot.

“The Gov­ern­ment has messed up both ends of the epi­demic. It acted too slowly, and fee­bly, at the start. And stretched out the pain un­nec­es­sar­ily at the end. They seem to lack any nu­ance,” said a car­di­ol­o­gist friend han­dling Covid cases at a Lon­don hospi­tal.

His top gripe is that NHS man­age­ment – who let the health sys­tem be­come the chief vec­tor of trans­mis­sion in March – is now so fo­cused on elim­i­nat­ing Covid that per­son-to-per­son di­ag­no­sis of other diseases has stopped, to the net detri­ment of over­all health.

“The re­al­ity, which they seem not to un­der­stand, is that we don’t have some vir­gin pop­u­la­tion. We’ve al­ready been

pole-axed, and as a re­sult, it’s ba­si­cally over. What hap­pened in places such as Lon­don won’t be re­peated, ever,” he said. Many oth­ers have reached the same con­clu­sion.

“The ide­ol­ogy of zero risk is dan­ger­ous,” says Yonathan Fre­und, a Sor­bonne pro­fes­sor and ed­i­tor of the Euro­pean Jour­nal of Emer­gency

Medicine, who sup­ported the orig­i­nal lock­down in France. “The con­se­quences of this disease for the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion will never be the same again.”

The UK is not alone in swing­ing from in­ac­tion to over­drive. France is man­dat­ing masks out­doors (point­lessly), after hav­ing first de­clared masks in­doors to be use­less. It is be­com­ing sur­real.

My car­di­ol­o­gist friend was a hard­liner in the first weeks of the pan­demic, warn­ing that the UK had failed to heed the lessons of Korea, Iran, and Lom­bardy, and was al­low­ing the virus spin out of con­trol. Now he and many of his front-line col­leagues are on the other side of the ar­gu­ment.

“I would keep face masks, pro­tect the care homes, con­tinue to ban mass gath­er­ings, and prob­a­bly be strict with pubs, but, aside from that, I would ba­si­cally re­turn to nor­mal,” he said. Con­tact trac­ing should con­tinue – or rather start in earnest – and should prefer­ably be left to lo­cal au­thor­i­ties with Ger­man fol­low-up rou­tines rather than be left to the in­er­tia of Serco.

In a sense there is much to cel­e­brate. The fatal­ity rate of ICU pa­tients in the NHS dropped from 42pc in early April to nearer 20pc by mid-July, thanks to dex­am­etha­sone, an­ti­co­ag­u­lants, ear­lier use of oxygen and a steep learn­ing curve at the clin­i­cal front line.

A world­wide meta-study pub­lished in Anaes­the­sia had a dif­fer­ent fig­ure, down from 60pc to 42pc but the cut-off date was the end of May. There have been steady gains since then.

The mount­ing ev­i­dence from T cell and mod­el­ling stud­ies is that large num­bers of peo­ple may have im­mu­nity de­spite not yield­ing de­tectable an­ti­bod­ies. Many may have some de­gree of un­der­ly­ing pro­tec­tion, per­haps as cross-im­mu­nity from ear­lier coron­avirus colds, or be­cause of ge­netic vari­abil­ity. They are the “dark mat­ter” co­hort.

I recog­nise that we do not have all the facts (when does one ever?). We don’t know the sever­ity of “long Covid” patholo­gies. Nasty sur­prises keep crop­ping up. Young peo­ple who seemed to brush off the virus at first may suf­fer last­ing lung, heart and or­gan dam­age.

If a vac­cine were im­mi­nent, the bal­ance of ad­van­tage would lie with dra­co­nian virus con­trol. But even Vladimir Putin’s Sput­nik stunt could not prom­ise bet­ter than Jan­uary. We may have to wait seven months or more for a cred­i­ble vac­cine at scale.

Some will claim that eas­ing re­stric­tions to­day im­plies that the lock­down was un­nec­es­sary in March. It is a ster­ile de­bate. Wher­ever gov­ern­ments re­fused to act – in­clud­ing Swe­den – peo­ple took mat­ters into their own hands and locked them­selves down. But only after avoid­able dam­age was done.

You can see in mo­bil­ity data that Swedes per­sisted with so­cial dis­tanc­ing for sev­eral weeks after Ital­ians re­turned to some­thing nearer life as nor­mal. The Swedish economy con­tracted 8.6pc in the sec­ond quar­ter, com­pared to 8.2pc in Ger­many, but Swe­den has al­most five times as many ex­cess deaths. The global pic­ture is clear enough: the coun­tries with the low­est “mis­ery index” – ie, the low­est ex­cess deaths and the low­est GDP fall com­bined – are those that locked down early, mo­bilised on “test, trace, iso­late”, and shielded their doc­tors, nurses and care homes. Will these prove to be Pyrrhic vic­to­ries, a mis­read­ing of the pan­demic marathon? No, but these win­ners have their own hard choices to make in phase 2.

Bri­tain no longer has a Covid-free sta­tus to pro­tect and there­fore has a cruel ad­van­tage over the next few months. It is fur­ther along this course than most OECD states. It has less to risk from open­ing up, and much to gain. So per­haps we should call it a day and go for growth be­fore we do last­ing struc­tural dam­age to the Bri­tish economy and to Bri­tish so­ci­ety.

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