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29 April 2020

Leader: The question of national resilience

Even as they confront Covid-19, Britain and the world must prepare for the threat of future pandemics.

By New Statesman

In his first Downing Street speech since recovering from coronavirus, Boris Johnson declared: “Many people will be looking at [Britain’s] apparent success.” The Prime Minister’s desire to project optimism is understandable, but if this is success one wonders what failure would look like. 

The UK has recorded one of the highest death tolls from Covid-19 in the developed world (more than 21,000 people have died in hospital and many thousands in care homes and in the community) and one of the lowest testing rates (37,000 tests were carried out on 26 April, far short of the government’s pledge of 100,000 a day). Health workers have been imperilled by a chronic lack of protective equipment (82 NHS employees and 16 social care staff have died). These failures should not be forgotten or excused. 

The lockdown, by contrast, has proved a qualified success. It has reduced the number of new infections and has prevented the NHS from being overwhelmed. Against some expectations, support for this approach has endured across all voter groups; social distancing has become an act of solidarity. 

The policy, however, is not without negative consequences. Children have been unable to attend school (research by the Sutton Trust found that two-thirds of pupils have not participated in online learning). Domestic abuse killings have risen and the number of calls to the Refuge helpline has increased by 49 per cent. As reported by Anoosh Chakelian and Michael Goodier, many people have failed to seek medical help for heart attacks, strokes or cancer symptoms, creating the conditions for a future public health crisis.

The economic costs of the lockdown will also become increasingly apparent. The Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, was swift to intervene, offering to pay 80 per cent of the wages of furloughed workers (up to a maximum of £2,500 a month). But the Office for Budget Responsibility has estimated that unemployment could rise to 3.4 million should full restrictions continue for three months. As the 1980s – when unemployment exceeded three million – demonstrated, the long-term cost of joblessness to individuals and the state is huge. No one should assume that a “V-shaped recovery”, as opposed to a prolonged period of stagnation, will follow. 

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The dilemmas facing the government have rarely been sharper. In this unenviable context, the best approach is candour. The Scottish government, which published its provisional exit strategy on 23 April, provided a model response. 

It states that “our guiding values should be kindness, compassion, openness and transparency”.

Since his near-death experience, Mr Johnson has sought to strike a more sincere and earnest tone. Having once called for the introduction of NHS charges and described the service as a religion that is “letting down its adherents very, very badly”, he now hails it as “unconquerable” and “powered by love”. 

Belated homilies to the NHS are no substitute for a national strategy, however. The Prime Minister was wise on 27 April to dismiss calls for a swift end to the lockdown. As the science journalist and author Laura Spinney writes in this week’s cover story, the risk of a “second wave” of infections is obvious. But as the lockdown persists, Mr Johnson must explain how his government intends to mitigate its worst consequences. Rather than being uncritically applauded, or unthinkingly traduced, his administration should be relentlessly scrutinised. 

Even as they confront Covid-19, Britain and the world must prepare for the threat of future pandemics. As Robert Skidelsky, JM Keynes’s pre-eminent biographer, writes this week, the West should end its “dogmatic reliance on global supply chains” as nation states seek to become more self-reliant. Mr Johnson’s utopian vision of a freewheeling “global Britain” is of little use when the imperative is to increase national resilience. 

The shared experience of the pandemic is shifting our priorities and altering our perspective. The United Kingdom will emerge from this crisis a changed country – it is within the government’s power to ensure that it is also a better one.

This article appears in the 29 Apr 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The second wave