This is the second post in a mini-series of three. In the first post I wanted to scope out what I thought could be the Covid-19 worst-case scenario. In this post I want to build on that theme to understand if the worst-case scenario is more or less likely to unfold. I’ve written this in the context of developments over the past two weeks and, in particular, the Prime Minister’s statement in the House of Commons on Monday 11 May. Warning: in this post I use some politically-incorrect turns of phrase and sprinklings of military, ie black humour. I’m a fully paid-up member of the Free Speech Union by the way 😉 …
Our Plan to Rebuild
‘We must acknowledge that life will be different …’
On 11 May the British government published its ‘Plan to Rebuild: The UK Government’s Covid-19 Recovery Strategy’. I’ve read every word of its 51 pages. It’s pretty depressing stuff; indeed, in many ways it’s a counsel of despair. In essence, the Plan says that we must live a nigh dystopian existence until a Covid-19 vaccine is developed. However, the Plan informs us that a vaccine might never be developed. The Plan then has no answers other than to predict the extension of dystopia ‘for the foreseeable future’, but with some technology (test, trace, isolate) thrown in potentially to mitigate the dystopian arrangements. The Plan assumes that developing herd immunity per se is unacceptable because, tacitly, that would mean accepting people dying of Covid-19 – and that is unacceptable. As I write this post, 31,855 British people have died of or with Covid-19 present at the time of death in the two months since 6 March. Bear in mind that about 100,000 people die every two months in the UK normally. A proportion of those 31,855 Covid-19 victims would have died anyway in the past two months, per the normal average. However, in terms of the coronavirus specifically, circa 0.05% of the UK population have thus far died of or with Covid-19. The government’s reaction to this arguable existential health threat to the United Kingdom has been summarily to close down the economy and hold 27 million people – half the working population of the country – on the government payroll (public sector and furloughed employees, and many otherwise self-employed people, me included).
As I turned the last page of the Plan, sighing and putting the highlighter pen down on the desk in the lamplit glow of my Study, I thought to myself, ‘our economy and society could be screwed if this is the Plan’. In fact, I mused that we could end up transitioning to a point when – perhaps sooner rather than later – people would simply ignore the government’s dystopian rules and just get on with their lives. It made me wonder if that was in fact the government’s unstated plan: ‘we’ve done our best; we’ve arrested the initial surge of the disease; we’ve beefed up the NHS; over to you general public if you want to take your chances with herd immunity’. This would perhaps explain the government amending its crisis management strapline from the specific ‘stay at home’ to the ambiguous ‘stay alert’.
On the other hand, if people don’t revolt and instead conform to the societal dysfunctionality proposed by the government in the Plan and its associated ‘Covid-19 Secure’ guidelines, then brace yourself for a return to the Middle Ages in pretty short order, metaphorically speaking. Economically, we’re staring the worst-case scenario in the face. If that wasn’t bad enough, here in Scotland, the First Minister can’t even be arsed to come up with a recovery plan at all and simply tells us to stick with the ‘stay at home’ policy – putting Scotland in pole position for the race to the Middle Ages.
Here are some of the anomalies for me. At the Downing Street press conference on 11 May, the Chief Medical Officer for England, Sir Chris Whitty said, ‘The significant majority of us won’t contract Covid-19’. That’s comforting. He then went on to say, ‘The great majority of those who contract Covid-19 won’t die from it’. That’s even more comforting, but hang on a minute: we’ve thrust the UK economy into its worst condition in over 300 years whilst preparing to create dystopia going forward – for what reason exactly? The Covid-19 global mortality rate is 0.9% for otherwise healthy people; Sir Chris Whitty referred to this during the press conference. If, like me, you’re reasonably healthy then you and I have a 0.9% chance of dying of Covid-19; that’s pretty much exactly the same risk you and I have of dying of absolutely anything else during the course of a year.
Faced with these singularly impressive odds of living (or am I missing something here?), just to repeat, overnight we’ve destroyed the UK economy and then drawn up a plan potentially to live the forthcoming months or even years spending time only with the existing members of our own household, dick-dancing our way to work or the park or the shops, avoiding public transport, steering clear of all other human beings whilst peering at each other over the tops of our homemade face-coverings of questionable benefit (we can’t use face-masks because they’re reserved for the NHS, care workers and other key workers). Is this serious? More to the point, is it sustainable until we discover a vaccine (which may never be discovered) or until such time as we’ve rolled out a reliable nationwide test, track and isolate system?
I pulled some raw data from the Office for National Statistics to sense-check my observations above. Here’s what I discovered. Up to 5 May 22,049 people died of or with Covid-19. Of those 22,049 deaths, 20,122 victims (91% of them) were over 60 years old. Of those 20,122 over-60-year-olds who died of/with Covid-19, 19,235 (96%) of them had pre-existing health conditions. So, 887 or just 4% of the over-60-year-old victims had no pre-existing health conditions. Of those victims younger than 60-years-old, 1,689 people – 8% of the cohort – also died with pre-existing health conditions. Just 238 people or 1% of the total group died with no pre-existing health conditions; per the Covid-19 global mortality rate. All this is consistent with the Chief Medical Officer’s comments quoted above.
Therefore, the question is, what is an acceptable Covid-19 death rate? The government’s answer can be found on Page 16 of the Plan: ‘no part of this Plan assumes an acceptable level of [Covid-19] infection or mortality’. In other words, in effect, nobody must contract or die of Covid-19. At least that’s clear, but it does have profound economic and social consequences.
Despite what I’ve said above, there remains uncertainty about the infectiousness and lethality of Covid-19. So far, the total number of excess deaths in the UK for the time of year is about 50,000, most of which are attributed to Covid-19 (as stated earlier) and with a large proportion of those deaths occurring in care homes. However, flu epidemics in the past have caused a similar spike in excess deaths. So, we’re not necessarily looking at an extraordinary health threat, albeit the Covid-19 clock’s still ticking, of course. Then again, there’s some evidence to suggest that the Covid-19 death rate could be double the currently calculated global mortality rate, ie 1.7% (rather than 0.9%). If this was proved to be true, it would translate into up to 560,000 deaths if half the UK population were to get infected (Professor Paul Hunter, Professor of Medicine, University of East Anglia).
On the other hand there’s Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter (Winton Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk, University of Cambridge) who pointed out that of the circa 30,000 Covid-19 deaths so far, two of them were children under 15 years old – of whom there are about 10 million in England and Wales. Professor Spiegelhalter said that the Covid-19 death threat to young people generally (the under 25s) is ‘staggeringly low’. He went on to say that the government’s communication with the public was ‘completely embarrassing’. Amen to that. Professor Spiegelhalter is in the camp which suspects that the Covid-19 fatality rate could be significantly less than 1%. So, the jury’s still out on just how life-threatening is Covid-19, but the weight of evidence indicates that the greatest threat lies to people over 60 years old and is very threatening to the over 80s. By contrast, people under 45 years old in reasonable health are extremely unlikely to die of Covid-19.
So, Covid-19 is a novel and nasty disease. When it first appeared (thanks China) the nature and scope of the threat was unknown. Better safe than sorry: we went into lockdown. South Korea, on the other hand, didn’t go into lockdown but had the capability to test, track and isolate; it’s Covid-19 death rate is 5 deaths per million; the UK’s is approaching 500 deaths per million. Had between them our politicians and the NHS got its pandemic planning act together in the fifth largest economy in the world, we might not be where we are today, but that’s a story for another day.
Lockdown had the desired effect: we bought time to build NHS capability and resources whilst also building a picture of the disease itself; it’s infectiousness and its lethality. We’re still building that picture as I’ve described. Specifically, and critically, we decided not to talk about the development of herd immunity, still less declare it as government policy; that would imply in effect allowing individuals to die for the greater good of the population. Fair enough; no politician could or would ever do that explicitly. Indeed, the Plan states clearly on Page 13, ‘at no point has [the development of herd immunity] been part of the government’s strategy’.
In terms of recovery, these two decision-making criteria – no Covid-19 death is acceptable, and the development of herd immunity is not government policy – will have the effect of hamstringing everything that happens from here on. Restricting Covid-19 deaths to nil is impossible. Inhibiting the development of herd immunity is virtually the same as telling everyone to ‘stay at home’. The criteria reinforce my speculation that perhaps the government’s true plan is to shift responsibility for the Covid-19 recovery strategy on to the shoulders of society itself. The government can say, look, we’re providing you with all of these
impractical, inconsistent and unsustainable guidelines to ensure that nobody dies of Covid-19 anywhere, ever. However, if you choose to ignore them then don’t say we didn’t warn you of the consequences.
Let’s take stock for a moment. The UK has been in lockdown for almost 8 weeks since 23 March. Half the working population is now on the government payroll. The cost, at about £15 billion per month, will catapult the national debt up to and possibly well beyond the £2 trillion mark to 100% of GDP or more, if we’re lucky (if that’s the right word); a debt level consistent with the country being engaged in total warfare. The UK economy is set to experience its worst deterioration in over 300 years, the time of The Great Frost of 1709. The effect of initiating and sustaining lockdown is now almost certainly causing irreparable damage to the economy (known as ‘scarring’). Thousands of businesses could disappear and never return; some industry sectors will be changed, conceivably forever (hospitality, travel and High Street retail come immediately to mind); unemployment will double at the very least; economic growth as we’ve known it will have the millstone of ‘Covid-19 Secure’ strapped around its neck making it doubly-difficult for businesses to recover or startup. The government was right to state in its Plan that from here on, ‘life will be different …’. You’re telling me it will.
A study by the University of Bristol concluded that ‘total deaths from Covid-19 and lockdown together could prove higher than the Second World War at more than 675,000 deaths’. The Economist newspaper summed things up by saying in a recent leader, ‘neither SARS nor the Spanish Flu had such a large economic effect as Covid-19. Life after lockdown will be hard in ways that are difficult to imagine today. Powerful forces will hold economies back. The anger [the economic situation] creates may end up feeding protectionism, xenophobia and government interference on a scale not seen before’.
A Doom Loop
The government’s ‘stay at home’ strategy, complete with its daily, doom-laden, context-free press conferences put the fear of God into the population. Mainstream media journalists have exacerbated the situation by stoking the, ‘we’re all going to die of Covid-19!’ hysteria to the exclusion of reporting on just about anything else. There’s been virtually no meaningful coverage of the looming catastrophic economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. The politico-media attitude seems to be that it’s unseemly to talk about the economy (conflated to mean filthy lucre) when a dear 89-year-old lady died today in a care home with Covid-19 present (she could have been my Mum, by the way). The daily, sometimes hourly mawkish references to the latest Covid-19 victims – as if nobody’s ever died before – are emotionally wearing and difficult to watch. Not because the coverage in itself upsets me; it’s because I want to scream at the television set, ‘But can’t you bloody idiots see it?! We’re committing economic suicide whilst you’re obsessing about a 1% death rate. For goodness sake, we must address and discuss the impact on society of the worst economic situation in 300 years!’.
The worrying thing is that between them, government and the mainstream media have played a blinder, and still are to some extent. Polls suggest that the majority of British people in lockdown, funded by the government (ie funded by the next generation and more of taxpayers), don’t want to come out of lockdown (surprise, surprise); the majority of people faced with going back to work don’t want to use public transport; a great swathe of parents don’t want their children to go back to school. Trades unions and teachers’ unions are agitating for their members not to return to work unless and until it can be guaranteed that they won’t die of Covid-19. The country’s engineered itself into a doom loop.
In the previous post and this one I wanted to contemplate the Covid-19 worst-case scenario and the likelihood of the worst-case coming to pass. Unless you’re a pathological optimist (and I have friends and acquaintances that way inclined), it’s difficult not to conclude that we’re facing a worst-case scenario both economically and, as a consequence, socially. Eminent economists and economics institutions are telling us as much. A blogger-friend shares my sentiments about the state we’re in. It doesn’t get much worse than a once-in-300-years collapse in economic activity with some experts predicting up to 675,000 deaths as a result. That said, things are never quite as bad as they seem, nor as fantastic as one would hope. Human beings are creative and entrepreneurial and at some point, we’ll arrive at some new socio-economic steady-state. However, the transition from now to then will involve a rough ride. We’re in the calm before the storm. In the final post in this series, I want to personalise how one might want to prepare for and cope with what could be a very challenging decade.
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See you down the pub … eventually.