Were we too harsh on Boris? No. Here’s why.

Yesterday we published this blog criticising the government’s chaotic U-turn on a second lockdown and saying that business should “get more vocal”. Many of you got in touch saying you agreed, but lots of people contacted us to say we had gone too far. Our aim is to stir up debate.

Everyone’s opinion is valid and do reply to this email with any comment.

We do of course stand by what we published. We’d like to explain why and share with you some of the other analysis from today’s papers.

Imperial researchers, in a blog posted six months ago, put it better than we ever could: “The current arguments about the trade-offs between isolation and return-to-work are more nuanced than simple “lives” versus “money”: instead they are more to do with “lives” versus “healthy lives”.”

Let’s summarise what they say:

  • We know research indicates a recession will lead to a large rise chronic illness. That’s without the NHS shutting down day-to-day services as it is now. The GFC triggered a 5pc fall in employment and Imperial’s analysis predicts prevalence of working-age chronic conditions will rise by between 7pc and 10pc.
  • This increase translates into around 900,000 more people of working age suffering from at least one chronic condition, such as asthma, depression and heart problems. They add that the shock to employment from the coronavirus pandemic is likely to be much larger than this.
  • Imperial predicts a particularly large rise in mental illness – particularly worrying as levels of mental ill-health already increased after the financial crisis of 2008 and have not dropped in the 10 years since.
  • Evidence shows the economic repercussions are falling disproportionately on young workers, low income families and women – particularly young mothers.
  • The adverse impact from suicide is clearly documented across a number of studies. To add to this, social distancing in itself is likely to have complex and nuanced effects on mental health.
  • Imperial said, unsurprisingly, that areas with a higher proportion of employment in “blue collar” industries would suffer most: areas which have older populations and areas with populations who are already in poorer long-term health.

The reality of everything we’ve seen this year is that COVID-19 has accentuated everything structurally wrong in society. From the failings of social care and child poverty at one end; to the knife-edge of profitability that many hospitality firms run on daily and the fact that we don’t need a Pret on every street corner.

Yes, it has sped up “innovation” – or rather forced backwards organisations to get with the digital age a decade or so after innovators chose to – but this is all stuff that should have happened far sooner.

The most damning elements shown up by this crisis are those around inequality and our failure, as a country, to genuinely address those divisions that have triggered Brexit and laid the fault-lines of our society. We are not making a party political point: neither main political party seems to have a manifesto to fix these problems.

As Philip Aldrick’s excellent comment in today’s Times quotes, “David Nabarro, special envoy to the World Health Organisation, they “only serve one purpose, to give you breathing space to build up testing and tracing” or other methods to “coexist with the virus”.”

Britain has neither.

People often point to Sweden to which “experts” point out its lack of densely populated areas. But what about Taiwan? Just over 500 of the 23.6 million Taiwanese tested positive but 250,000 were made to quarantine. There was no lockdown, no mass screening, no testing app and the economy will not shrink this year, as Aldrick points out.

My previous employers at Heathrow are going through some unenviable pain right now. But had Britain – which let’s remember is an island with full control over its borders – closed its airspace in March, rather than dithering, things would be far better now. No one has taken this pandemic seriously and, even now, while holidays are “banned”, travel is not actually being prevented. The track and trace system still doesn’t work.

“No 10 would consider a scheduled circuit-breaker every third month a failure. But at least it would be a strategy to fail that gave business a framework in which to operate and a structure to plan economically,” Aldrick adds. “Better than the rudderless defeat Britain has been made to endure so far.”

The quote I’ll leave you with comes from Ben Marlow’s Telegraph column today as the right-wing Tory-supporting press continue to come out against the PM: “It’s not quite “f— business” but the Prime Minister’s decision to cancel an appearance at the CBI annual conference two days after announcing a second national lockdown may leave bosses wondering if the Government has finally adopted that as its official motto.”


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