Worst of Both WorldsBoris Johnson's Mishandling of COVID-19 Has Trashed the UK Economy
Mike Buckley on the failures of leadership and ideology which has led to the UK to expect the worst economic Coronavirus damage of any country in the developed world
The Government’s culpability in the needless deaths of tens of thousands of Britons is now beyond doubt. Their failure to lockdown despite ample evidence that it was needed in early March, their faith in herd immunity and failure to protect care homes are just three of the most obvious errors. They are paying the price of lost popularity. Too many are paying with their lives or lost loved ones. Sadly we not yet out of the woods.
Unlike other governments they have failed to recognise that what is best for health is also best for the economy.
There are multiple reasons for their failure. At root is their belief in their own superiority – why follow the advice of the World Health Organisation (WHO) and other European governments who were telling the UK to lockdown in early March?
Just as importantly COVID-19 did not fit the script. This was supposed to be the year of Boris Johnson triumphant, Brexit done and levelling up begun – “economic shock and awe” as Rishi Sunak’s first budget was described. Johnson’s libertarian instincts in addition made him loathe to closing pubs and large gatherings.
Catastrophically, the Government’s pandemic preparedness plan envisaged a deadly ‘flu strain, not a coronavirus. The plan naively states that “the Government will encourage those who are well to carry on with their daily lives… The UK Government does not plan to close borders, stop mass gatherings or impose controls on public transport during any pandemic.’”
They were determined to go their own way until Imperial College’s mid-March report made clear that half a million would die. Even then the lockdown was less stringent than those imposed in France, Spain or Italy.
Debate within Government both before and during lockdown has veered between prioritising health impacts and the needs of the economy. Rightwingers in and out of Government have sought to make out that the lockdown is unnecessary or that the economy should take precedence. They still are.
Both economy and health are the Government’s responsibility. It is only right that they consider the needs of both, but unlike other governments, they have failed to recognise that what is best for health is also best for the economy. Locking down late allowed business to continue trading for a short while longer but at a huge later cost.
If there is a key to managing a pandemic it is preparedness, test and trace. Germany is an exemplar. They already had a network of 400 local health authorities which had been doing contact tracing for other infections for years. In early spring this was repurposed with new staff. They used the lessons and time given from the experiences of China and Italy to ensure that test and trace was working.
Even nations with poor health systems but decisive governments such as Albania proved that quick reactions combined with a strict lockdown can be effective. In the UK we had neither. We are now in the unenviable position of having the worst death rate per capita in the world.
Decisive action to contain the pandemic accompanied by a robust test and trace operation until a vaccine or cure is available is the best choice not just for health, but also for the economy. A swift and tough lockdown reduces economic activity dramatically but also briefly. Using the lockdown to develop effective test and trace allows healthy people back to work and leisure. By prevaricating over lockdown, imposing it less stringently than others, wasting the time made available to build effective test and trace and then coming out of lockdown before it was ready, the Government have not only cost lives have harmed our chances of recovery.
As other nations which locked down more quickly and harshly, and which are now emerging from lockdown recover, the difference is becoming clear. The OECD estimate that the UK economy will suffer the worst COVID-19 damage of any country in the developed world, almost double that seen in Germany and 12 times that of China.
The UK is now in the unenviable position of having an R rate close to 1 and daily infections in the thousands, making it impossible to fully emerge from lockdown, combined with an economy in freefall. We still meet few of the key criteria for ending lockdown successfully, crucially including a viable contact tracing system. US states which ended lockdown without test and trace are seeing massive spikes in hospitalisations a few weeks later. We would be no different.
The Government’s room for manoeuvre on the economy would be far greater if it had followed Germany’s example with an early lockdown and effective test and trace operation. Countries which took the virus seriously in February and March are now able to reopen their economies with confidence. Their infection and hospitalisation rates are low. Their contact tracing systems are fully operational. Their economies are in the process of being repurposed for a pandemic world.
The tragedy for the UK is that the root cause of our death rate and impending economic disaster is not health spending, preparedness or testing. Countries with far less money and a far less capable health system have emerged in a much better position.
The OECD estimate that the UK economy will suffer the worst COVID-19 damage of any country in the developed world, almost double that seen in Germany and 12 times that of China.
The root cause of success or failure is the presence or lack of good governance. Germany has done well because Angela Merkel is a capable leader who has avoided ‘the screeching policy zigzags’ seen elsewhere. Countries as disparate and comparatively poor as Albania and Vietnam, as well as wealthy but prepared countries like Taiwan, have done the same. The willingness and ability of governments to take decisive action is a key criterion for a country’s ability to handle the pandemic, as with any other challenge. In this regard the UK is found wanting, which tragically does not bode well for either future health impacts or our economy.
Mike Buckley is director of the campaign group ‘Labour for a European Future’