With a patronisingly punchable earnestness, Health Secretary Matt Hancock is pleading with the kids: “Don’t kill your gran.”
This is the government’s attempt to pre-emptively blame the young for yet another policy disaster in the making, this time the failure of its economic reopening policy. This government is perhaps unique in the frequency with which it has committed itself to a disastrous policy, only to be forced to retreat. From lockdown to downgrading students’ results, every reversal has come after warnings, and at great cost.
The latest disaster in the making concerns the predictable consequences of aggressively reopening the economy. The World Health Organisation has warned that a “second wave” of COVID-19 infections is coming to the UK. A new surge in cases has triggered alarm from scientists, both official and independent. The nationwide R number has risen above one, meaning the number of people infected is rising faster than the number of people recovering. As Professor Gabriel Scally put it, “it’s no longer small outbreaks they can stamp on” with local lockdowns.
This time, the government can’t afford to look complacent. While the very-online right tends to claim that young people getting infected isn’t a problem, Hancock admits that a surge in cases among the young – who can suffer terribly with the disease – is a prelude to infection in the vulnerable and elderly. Hancock’s wheedling of the youth, therefore, is an attempt to get ahead of this story while it is still developing and blame those who get sick.
Hancock claims that the rise in cases is due to the young breaking the government’s rules. The problem is, the rules could almost be designed to trigger a second wave. In the House of Commons, for example, Hancock blamed a spike in cases in Bolton on people socialising in pubs, as shown by contact tracing. But that is not against the rules.
Until June, the government claimed to be “following the science”. This meant it was taking the advice of its Sage panel of scientific experts. It then overruled its own scientists and took the extraordinary step of reopening the riskiest environments – pubs and restaurants – while also reducing social distancing requirements to one metre. This practically abolished social distancing rules at a time when the R number was hovering at just below one, and no proper testing and tracing system was in place. In practice, even a one metre distance is not always adhered to in some crowded venues, trains or buses. It certainly isn’t adhered to by drunk people in pubs.
Since then, the government has insisted on students attending university campuses and workers going back to the office. In defence of the latter strategy, Matt Hancock has defied scientific backlash to claim that there is “little evidence” that COVID-19 spreads in the office. Even if this were true, it only takes a few people to spread it in the workplace for it then to be spread in households and multiply. As for universities, the UCU is rightly worried by the number of examples in the US where campuses have reopened, only to have to close down quickly after triggering a new outbreak.
The government has done all but serve fresh human hosts to the coronavirus on a silver platter. And it can only get worse. As Professor John Edmunds explains, the government has been lucky with the warm weather. In colder weather, people will be crowded indoors. With universities reopening at the same time, and the government pressuring people to return to the office, the virus will spread again. It is cynical and unfair to blame young people – who have been more supportive of lockdown than older demographics – for that. As Professor Susan Michie of the Sage group told the BBC, the government has put them in a hopeless bind, urging them to spend money and socialise while blaming them for the virus spreading.
Further ironies pile up at the government’s expense. The main reason they ceased any attempt to suppress the coronavirus was in order to reopen the economy after a terrifying contraction. They didn’t want to go into lockdown, they were alarmed that people accepted it so readily, and they were desperate to get out as soon as possible. And yet, the reopening is failing even on economic terms, precisely because the government never got coronavirus under control.
The government’s strategy, authored by Chancellor Rishi Sunak, was to hand restaurants and pubs tax breaks and financial incentives. The tax breaks didn’t work, and spending remained well below what it was before the pandemic. The “Eat Out to Help Out” campaign, offering state-subsidised half-price meals from Monday to Wednesday, had more luck. Yet overall consumer spending was still weak, falling in real terms, despite this fiscal boost and the summer trade benefiting pubs. Most restaurants will not continue to offer the half-price meal now that state support has been withdrawn.
Boris Johnson’s recent warning of tough times ahead, in stark contrast to his earlier boosterism and the Bank of England’s promise of 20 percent growth, shows that the government is panicking. High street closures are soaring, investment has plummeted by over 30 percent and there is an army of hidden unemployed waiting to be exposed once furlough is ended.
The government gave us the worst of both worlds: just enough people flooding into crowded environments to help the virus spread, but not enough to get the economy growing. It is only a matter of time before yet another screeching U-turn.
Where did the government’s pathetic muddle come from? Almost every policy disaster thus far has been a result of denial. The Tories initially thought they could protect the pre-COVID economy by avoiding lockdown. They then thought they could put the economy on ice and thaw it out after a few months. They’re now finding that the pre-COVID economy is dead, and they have little idea what to do next.
As always, in a jam, their first stop is to blame the victims of their policy.