Will the cure be worse than the disease? No-one knows
It will be months, if not years, before we can assess whether the lockdown in response to Covid-19 will have caused more suffering and death than direct infection. Analyses of available data have led to an estimate that it doubles the risk of death within a year for all age groups, adjusted by co-morbidity etc. That implies a death rate in London, for example, of about double that now estimated for the Great Smog of 1952.
What we do “know” for certain is that almost nothing we have been told or might predict is based on robust evidence. The two opening paragraphs of the Chatham House guide to responses around the world indicate succinctly how and why this is so: “confusion, chaos and denial … [while] the window of opportunity to respond closes rapidly … political manoeuvring … lack of co-ordination, ambivalence towards response structures and tensions in key relationships …” We have seen them all. They are compounded by the pressure on journalists to keep ahead of social media in covering the latest “news”, real or rumour. Meanwhile politicians and governments have to be seen to be “in charge” and “ahead of the game”, whether or not they believe the advice they are being given.
Decisions that would normally take months or years have to made within days on the balance of guesstimated probabilities masquerading as “science”. These have ranged from dramatic lock downs and emergency powers based on extrapolating the Wuhan model to the decision by the US Food and Drug Administration to agree the use of obsolete and now rarely used (because of known side effects) anti-malarial drugs in “a wide scale human experiment”, in New York City. According to the Washington Post Political Newsletter a decision which would normally have taken at least nine months of studies and testing was agreed inside three days.
Public and political will are likely to change before we have “reliable” data
The success of the lockdown and the speed with which 750,000 have volunteered to help the NHS response indicate that current UK policy really does have the broad public support indicated by opinion polls, but how long will that last?
The latest YouGov data indicates that support is shallow (“fairly” rather than “very”), particularly among the young. While 68% of the over 65s are very or fairly scared of contracted Covid-19 the same is true of only 43% of those aged 18 – 24. This lack of fear is reflected in their contrasting views of how well the Government has handled the crisis. 32% of the over 65s think the Government has handled the crisis very well compared to only 10% of 18 – 24 year olds.
If the Prime Minister and Health Secretary work through a mild infection we can expect a reaction against the “scientific” advice which has caused the UK to follow most of the world into almost total lockdown while Singapore and Sweden have resisted the pressures to do so. This will almost certainly lead to the lockdown being relaxed before it collapses. Those of my generation (where a doubling of the risk of dying within the year makes a significant difference) may hope that such a relaxation will be selective, as in Wuhan, and tied to the gathering pace of testing. Those aged under 24 might, however, force the pace, while leaving us “kettled” for much longer.
If the Prime Minister and the Health Service team are seriously incapacitated, the experts will be able to say “we told you so” and support for the current scale of lockdown will last longer. leading to an even more painful recovery.
What is the likely end game?
In among the many articles , websites and social media groups covering national and local guidance and volunteering initiatives we are beginning to see some speculating about the nature of the end game in both the US and the UK. The comments in response to such articles indicate thecurrent consensus in support of lockdown, denial of civil liberties and enforced totalitarian collectivism is temporary and fragile.
Some respondents appear to expect recovery policies akin to those after the total mobilisation of World War 2 (including state planning and rationing).
Others, seeing the cleaner city air resulting from falls in traffic, look forward to expediting Green agendas.
Those who have lost jobs, savings and businesses appear split between those who expect Government to help them and tell them what to do and those who have lost faith in Government and want to be free to help themselves and their families to recover.
We can also see concerns that the closure of schools and youth and sports clubs will lead to lead a dangerous period in our inner cities as bored teenagers face a long hot summer with little to do.
Business in lockdown need to not only survive but plan for recovery.
The McKinsey paper “A blueprint for remote working: lessons from China” provides succinct board level guidance (and many links) for those whose organisations may have to survive weeks or months of partial or total lock down and then compete with those who have emerged before them.
- It is difficult to work from home while the children are also learning from home.
- Productivity tails off unless the organisation has plans and strategies for maintaining it.
Five of the eight “lessons from China” echo messages in the quality policy, project management, estimating, documentation, testing and other manuals that underpinned F I’s reputation for better meeting clients’ needs for delivering robust software to time and budget than most of its conventional competitors. The new “lessons” are to do with harnessing and securing the networking technologies we have today to support home-based workers. In short, organisations need to organise and support remote workers properly and also use the opportunity to provide them with the structures and skills the organisation will need for the recovery.
The process of adapting to survive has begun
Yesterday I updated my blog on the guidance and content available for those switching from classroom to home learning as schools, colleges and classroom/residential training centres are closed. It now includes links covering guidance regarding on-line support for apprenticeships and examples (Blue Screen IT and Digital Skills UK ) of how those providing industry recognised courses and qualification are responding.
I have also begun receiving e-mails from Pubs, Restaurants and their suppliers who are now doing home deliveries to their customers and offering to help organise on-line social activities for the organisations whose events they used host.
Parliament has, reluctantly, gone on-line
One of the final actions by Parliament before it went into lockdown was to agree the use of remote conferencing for its Select Committees, discounting the advice of those who, like MOD regarded applications like Zoom as insecure, despite their use by the Prime Minister to host Cabinet meetings. Presumably the Ministers involved did not use Macs, the source of the security flaw publicised by Zoom’s competitors . Many, perhaps most, MPs are now running virtual offices from their homes, linking their constituency and parliamentary staff, also working from home, more closely than before.
So too have the political parties
The Conservative Policy Forum, relaunched last year as the main in-house policy formation arm of the Conservative Party, responded to the canclelation of the Conservative Spring Forum by moving competition for policy ideas on-line. It has also gone on-line for its policy discussion, on responses to the Covid Emergency. The briefing for this includes a clear and succinct summary of what Government has done before asking what more is needed. The questions range from asking for suggestions of local responses that could/should be copied elsewhere, through gaps in provision that need to be addressed, to how we bring lockdown to a successful conclusion and recover afterwards. There is also the question of hope we hope society will change as a result.
Nothing will be the same again.
We will need new thinking, as opposing to the re-shoeing of old hobbyhorses.
As yet the pundits are merely updating their past nostrums. I am no better. I am due to present one of the motions for the CPF policy competition. It is an extension to the off-line world of the case for partnership policing of the on-line world on which I blogged just before Christmas . Handling the recovery from Covid-19 into a changed new world will make such action, including the on-line training of volunteers, even more urgent but we also need to take a good look at the governance structures – local as well as national and international.
One of the other entries in the CPF policy competition is to merge Income Tax and National Insurance. This has been overdue since the link between contributions and benefits atrophied and died. The problems with organising benefits for the surge in unemployment, including among those previously self employed, makes it timely to also use HMRC identities, as well as records, to handle Universal Credit.
That raises the need, as I raised in my most recent blog, to take a new look at data sharing across the public sector, not just to allow mobile phone apps to be used to help enable those who are not infectious to be released from lock down to help the recovery. But that is not the only area where a bonfire of regulation may be needed to help the recovery.
The small print of the response of BEREC (the college of Europe Communications Regulators) contains a call to preserve “Net Neutrality” in the face of pressures to prioritise emergency traffic not that the Internet is the critical infrastructure, alongside power, that is keeping society going. As yet the Internet has coped remarkably well, in part because players like Netflix have voluntarily tuned down resolution, but is “neutrality” between content and types of traffic really appropriate for a core part of the global, not just national, critical infrastructure.
There is much to think about while we are in lockdown if we want to live in a relatively free, safe and democratically accountable society afterwards, for however long it takes us to rebuild prosperity.