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30 November 2020updated 01 Dec 2020 11:47am

Boris Johnson is in a mess of his own making over the government’s coronavirus strategy

There is no good reason for the Prime Minister to have shrouded his decision-making in darkness.

By Stephen Bush

The UK government has produced an impact assessment about the costs and benefits of England’s coronavirus strategy. There is very little that is new in it, but it does collate the headlines from a variety of other government publications in one place.

The assessment argues that it is impossible to gauge what the impact on British businesses would be with no restrictions in place. On the one hand, people would be able to go about their lives freely, stimulating the economy in the usual way. On the other, if healthcare capacity were overwhelmed by a novel pandemic and the United Kingdom’s death toll was unmitigated by lockdown measures, the average person might be slightly reluctant to pop down to the pub as normal.

I think this is superficially reasonable but collapses when you think about it. We have a number of live experiments with different coronavirus strategies playing out across the world. We know that, broadly, the best situation is to be a country with a very large number of young people, in which you can let coronavirus pass through, causing deaths but not overwhelming healthcare infrastructure. 

[see also: How fair are the new Covid-19 tiers?]

If you are an older country, such as the United Kingdom, the best policy was to lock down very early, when there were few Covid-19 cases, or to already have an effective test, trace and isolate system in place. Democracies that fit one of these two categories – New Zealand, Taiwan, South Korea, Australia and Japan – have experienced a smaller hit to economic growth than democracies – like those in Western Europe – which have been forced into prolonged, on-off national lockdowns.

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And then we have various experiments in degrees of lockdown elsewhere in the world, ranging from Israel, where people were banned from travelling more than 100 metres from their homes, through to Sweden, where there were a number of restrictions in place but largely in the form of government guidance rather than law. We can then control for differences in population – a significant proportion of the Israeli population lives in or around the Tel Aviv primary urban area, more than half of the Swedish population lives alone – to create a series of possible scenarios. Then we have the US, where there is a patchy set of stay-at-home orders and closures, and as close as is possible to an uncontrolled epidemic in a comparable country.

[see also: Is the UK’s second Covid-19 lockdown working?]

There’s a high degree of uncertainty in these extrapolations but you can make them, and it is not clear to me why the UK government has refrained from doing so. That said, it is even more unclear to me why the government has felt it necessary to produce a bespoke impact assessment at all, rather than simply publishing and sharing all the information it is using in a more timely fashion.

None of the information used by the government to reach decisions on the novel coronavirus requires security clearance or is particularly sensitive: there are one or two issues with how you present the information to avoid identifying individuals but there is no reason for our coronavirus strategy to be debated in darkness, and many reasons to believe that it is actively undesirable that we have done so.

The government’s lack of transparency has had two negative consequences. The first problem is that a large number of Conservative MPs have lost trust and this makes it harder for ministers to follow their preferred coronavirus strategy. But the bigger problem is that a larger number of voters do not understand the rules and, crucially, why they are in place. It’s one thing to understand that the ban on indoor mixing exists, but quite another to understand why it is in place. And it is yet another to understand ways you can minimise the risk to yourself if you are travelling to see family over the Christmas period, and so on. While it is the parliamentary headache that is causing Tory anxiety today, the public health one may have a longer afterlife.

[see also: How the UK suffered 50,000 Covid-19 deaths – the highest number in Europe]