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Westlake Legal Group > Posts tagged "Fraser Nelson"

Daniel Hannan: The abuse, outrage and viciousness is hurled overwhelmingly at those of us who back ending the lockdown

Daniel Hannan is a writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

You’d think that the Covid-19 outbreak would place us all on the same side. We all want to minimise fatalities. We all want as little suffering as possible in terms of job losses, preventable poverty and, indeed, collateral deaths caused by the diversion of resources. We all have vulnerable relatives and friends.

There are, in short, no sectional interests, no divergent goals. Though people may disagree about ways and means, you’d expect the nation to be wrapped in a rare feeling of solidarity.

You’d be wrong. The country remains as tribal and splenetic as ever. Conspiracy theories circulate about the prime minister having faked his illness or deliberately contracted the coronavirus. Matt Hancock is preposterously accused of insulting the NHS workers whose praises he sings every day. Newspapers pretend to be scandalised because Robert Jenrick drove medical supplies to his self-isolating parents.

We might dismiss all this as unrepresentative noise from the permanently outraged – and, to some extent, it is. A lot of the criticism follows familiar patterns: Left versus Right, Remain versus Leave. Most of the vitriol aimed at the Government, for example, comes from people who already hated the Tories.

Even so, there is a palpable asymmetry. The viciousness is directed overwhelmingly at those who want to relax the shutdown, not at those who want to extend it. Some of this has to do with existing prejudices. It so happens that many of the advocates of a less restrictive regime were already loathed by the Left: Peter Hitchens, James Delingpole, Toby Young, Fraser Nelson.

But that alone doesn’t explain it. The European country that is implementing policies closest to those advocated by these columnists is Social Democratic Sweden, which believes that it is sticking to the letter of its medical advice while others have gone further for reasons that have more to do with public opinion than science.

Sweden might turn out, when all this is over, to have made the wrong call. So far, though, it shows no sign of rushing to copy its neighbours. On the contrary, the neighbours are starting to copy Sweden. Schools are reopening in Denmark and parts of Germany, as are shops in Austria and the Czech Republic. Even Spain and Italy have relaxed their rules. It may soon be Britain, rather than Sweden, that is the outlier.

The diversity of national approaches should allow us to study what works. Instead, many commentators seem affronted that Sweden should have chosen to stick to the advice of its epidemiologists – or, as the Washington Post put it “to experiment with national chauvinism”.

The insults hurled at Sweden are as nothing next to those aimed at its British admirers. Question whether we are getting the balance right and you will be called at best callous and at worst a eugenicist. Toby Young has been driven to set up a kind of samizdat website for anyone who thinks we might be overreacting.

To point out that trade-offs need to be made should be to state the obvious. In a situation like this, every option carries costs. Do nothing and people who would otherwise have lived will die for want of treatment. Close everything and we would all starve.

The challenge is to find the optimum point on the spectrum between those extremes, the point at which the most bearable restrictions yield the greatest gains. Almost everyone can see that we need to keep chemists open, and almost everyone can see that this doesn’t apply to (say) nightclubs. But what about the large intermediate space? Might we reopen other shops, as they are starting to do across Europe, provided they can limit the number of customers inside? If shops, what about hairdressers? Or restaurants? Or schools?

These questions are not just legitimate; they are urgent. The forecast published yesterday by the OBR is of a depression beyond anything we have experienced: a 35 per cent drop in GDP this quarter and a two million rise in unemployment. This would, as Kate Andrews points out, be “worse than the financial crash and both world wars”.

Think about what those figures mean for people’s health and happiness. Think about the impact they are already having – not yet on journalists and commentators, though that will come, but on the cash-in-hand economy. Or if you really are determined to tell yourself that there are some Tories who care only about “the economy” as an abstract noun, rather than as a measure of people’s welfare, consider reports that NHS leaders are worried that “we could end up losing more ‘years of life’ because of fatalities relating to non-Covid-19 health complications.”

Simply to write in these terms is to invite derision. A common threat, especially in the form of a pathogen, flicks switches in our brains, making us less tolerant of dissent. Proponents of a harsher crackdown, in such a situation, have a psychological advantage.

If this were true only of the media debate, it wouldn’t much matter. Hitchens and Delingpole can look after themselves. But if you think that governments – even scientific advisers – are unaffected by public opinion, you haven’t been watching.

We all have cognitive biases. I certainly do. I was initially too blasé about this bug, having seen the same pattern of alarmism with bird flu, swine flu and others. Even now, I find myself reading cheerful news (for example, studies suggesting that quite a few of us may already have had the virus with mild or zero symptoms) more readily than gloomy news (for example, suggestions that recovering from Covid-19 does not guarantee immunity). I sometimes have to make myself read the surveys that challenge my prejudices.

I am subject to these biases, and so is everyone else. In government, the biases pull overwhelmingly toward harsher restrictions. Ministers know that they will never be criticised for playing it too safe. They know that the polls show huge support for restrictions. They know that people are more concerned about a present threat than about future economic hardships, however terrible.

That is not to say that Ministers are wrong to be cautious. They have more information in front of them than I have. We should simply be aware of the pressures on them. If there are good reasons to delay easing the restrictions, there are also bad ones, such as “The public won’t wear it”, or “We can’t decide this until the Prime Minister is back” or “Let’s wait a little longer just to be sure”.

Recall why the shutdown was decreed in the first place. It wasn’t to defeat the disease; no one can do that in the absence of a vaccine. Rather, it was to buy time to build NHS capacity. We wanted to be sure that our hospitals would not be overwhelmed, as had tragically happened in parts of Italy. Yet the talk now – not only from commentators, but from ministers – is about “turning the corner” or “winning the battle”.

The first objective is laudable: no one objects to the idea of paying to ensure that we have enough ventilators and critical beds. The second objective is impossible, because the disease has no cure.

The only test that counts is whether we can be confident that the peak of the infection will not overwhelm our system – in other words, that people will not die for want of medical attention. Ministers now suggest that they are indeed confident about it. If so, a phased easing of the restrictions should start right away.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Ryan Bourne: What is the Government using the shutdown for?

Ryan Bourne holds the R Evan Scharf Chair in Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute. 

Covid-19 is producing an economic bloodbath across developed economies. OECD sectoral analysis suggests lockdowns will see day-to-day activity fall 25-30 per cent across countries for their duration; the Office for Budget Responsibility reckons 35 per cent in the UK. Even if this lasted for just three quarters, with immediate rapid bounce-back, GDP would be 10 per cent lower over the year – a much greater downturn than after the Great Recession.

You don’t need economic expertise to realise that closing businesses and locking people at home reduces activity. U.S. data shows 16.6 million Americans – over a tenth of its labour force – filed for unemployment insurance in the past three weeks.

Universal Credit here in Britain has seen 1.2 million extra claims since March 16. That’s after unprecedented actions, remember, to discourage layoffs. The OBR assumes a strong recovery and no permanent economic damage, but the longer this goes on, the more businesses fail and employment relationships get destroyed. After some duration, mothballing activity becomes more damaging relative to economic adaptation. No wonder, per Fraser Nelson, Boris Johnson wonders about the wisdom of restrictions.

Truly dreadful GDP and unemployment figures are incoming. But Johnson must remember this: the economy would still be cratering even without lockdown, because of changes to behaviour and collapsing supply chains.

Swedish unemployment is rising faster than after 2008, even with laxer social distancing measures. South Korea, with its test-and-track approach, has seen growth give way to recession. Consumers and producers will avoid getting sick by forgoing much “social spending” and risky production even absent government orders.

This effect probably accounts for 50 per cent of the downturn. We tend to attribute all outcomes to politicians, but you could re-open every cinema across the country tomorrow and barely anyone would go. So false dichotomy #1 is that the economic alternative to lockdowns is normality.

In reality, the economy will only fully “normalise” once the virus threat is vanquished. That means a credible vaccine, effective treatment or relatively stable herd immunity (it is unclear how long immunity lasts), or else such an efficient test and contact tracing system that public confidence is restored. Anything else is adaptation or destruction, with a cost. We therefore need less talk of an “exit strategy” for lockdowns and more talk of an exit strategy from covid-19’s stranglehold over our lives.

Here, though, the Government’s thinking is difficult to discern. Can anyone explain its aim beyond “protecting the NHS” from this first peak of infections? Is it to use the lockdown time to build extra NHS capacity and then manage future caseloads until herd immunity is reached? Is it instead to use restrictive containment to minimise deaths until a vaccine is in sight? Is the Government waiting on an effective treatment to facilitate loosening restrictions? Or building up South Korea-style testing infrastructure?

Last week, Dominic Raab alluded to a strategy for the next phase. But he would not express it, lest he muddy the waters on “stay at home” messaging. Yet, the population has been, if anything, more compliant with orders than expected so far. It belittles us to be kept in the dark. Absent a clearly articulated strategy, and business uncertainty will heighten, and severe non-compliance is risked if people start questioning why they are sacrificing their livelihoods and liberties. Particularly once the army of the immune grows and other countries take different approaches.

The absence of discussion of our true options here is sadly leading to false dichotomy #2: that the alternative to lockdown is doing nothing and hundreds of thousands of people dying.

Let’s be clear: lockdowns will “work” in lowering the virus’s transmission. In the face of uncertainty, overwhelmed health systems, and lack of infrastructure for other approaches, they are a precautionary nuclear option. But they aren’t an end game for the virus. They buy time to better manage cases or work towards a vaccine.

Yet they are a destructive, unsustainable stop-gap restricting much high-risk and low-risk economic activity alike. So grave are they in disrupting our lives and freedoms, we must first demand that they are not more draconian than they need to be and, second, that the time bought by them is used wisely, with a meaningful new policy once new cases are back at low numbers.

“Reviews” of lockdowns should therefore be meaningful. Worldwide, businesses are adopting strict social distancing safety protocols, such as screens, regular disinfecting, mandatory mask wearing, one-way systems, single entrances, and adjusted business hours. Capitalism finds ways of giving consumers and workers confidence to re-engage. As these develop, business shutdowns, logically, should be eased. Is the Government considering this? Life-sapping restrictions on outdoors activities likewise look disproportionate, given other steps that could be taken to lower risks.

Making sure any lockdown only disrupts what it has to should be the bare minimum we expect from governments. But ultimately the next stage requires confronting the messy trade-offs that come on the path to the end of the pandemic, best analysed using an all-encompassing economic cost-benefit analysis.

For keeping aggressive restrictions until a vaccine turns up is a non-starter – it guarantees an economic depression that would create civil unrest (especially if a vaccine proves elusive). Now is the time to earn public buy-in for balancing health and economic wellbeing going forwards, recognising the trade-offs inherent in any other path.

Allowing younger age groups back out brings significant risks for multi-generation households, for example, while industry-by-industry relaxations bring charges of favouritism. Immunity passports – allowing those who have recovered to live normal lives – brings risks of false positives if introduced too early, while also creating incentives for some to catch the virus to “win their freedom.”

Variolation –giving “safe” doses in controlled medical environments – requires using scarce healthcare workers for deliberate infections. Relaxing to social distancing measures after the peak, a la Sweden, but perhaps with at-risk groups isolated, sounds more feasible, but that would bring political accusations of “putting the economy over lives” given an inevitable higher death toll than suppression.

Testing-and-contact tracing as mitigation “works” elsewhere. But it has monumental civil liberties implications, particularly if it incorporates forced quarantine. Then there’s trying to end this through medical innovation – vaccines and effective treatments. These, surely, have to be an addition to a strategy and not its extent.

The lockdown bought time to weigh up these options, or some combination, considering the constraints of public opinion and technology. They are all imperfect, given this truly dreadful situation with no “good” outcomes. But the government must soon show its hand. The alternative, let’s not forget, is a deeply destructive, authoritarian, largely un-policeable lockdown. The vacuum of audible strategy is creating an inane debate that implies the only meaningful choice is between mass deaths or economic destruction.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com