WHICH is more important: lives or livelihoods? That is the debate that is being conducted inside the Cabinet over the question when to end the Covid-19 lockdown. One group of senior ministers, revealingly dubbed the “hawks”, want to try to restart the economy before the virus is defeated. The other, being called the “doves”, want the lockdown to continue until the rate of reproduction of the virus is definitely on the wane.
For a while, it looked as if the hawks were in the ascendant; but, it seems, Boris Johnson, from his place of recuperation, has let it be known that he wants the lockdown to continue. Perhaps his own grim experience at the hands of the virus has swayed him. Perhaps he has decided that he needs to do something about the way in which the tide of public opinion has turned against his administration. Opinion polls suggest that a large majority want isolation and social distancing to continue.
For a while now, stories have been piling up about the inadequacy of the Government’s handling of the pandemic. The Guardian revealed that, during the decade of austerity, there had been a deliberate 40-per-cent cut in the personal protective equipment (PPE) stockpiles for use by medics in any future epidemic. The Financial Times reported that ministers had missed the chance to order more ventilators with the rest of Europe, allegedly because of their Brexit blinkers. On social media, one British business after another complained that it had offered to build ventilators or provide PPE to the NHS, but that its offers had been repeatedly ignored by the Cabinet Office.
The Government can claim two significant successes on the pandemic. The creation of the Nightingale hospitals has expanded the capacity of the NHS enough for the latter not, so far, to be overwhelmed by the virus. And the lockdown pandemic has succeeded in slowing the spread of the deadly infection.
But what turned the tide was the damning catalogue of all the Government’s inaction and neglect during the first five weeks of the crisis, compiled by The Sunday Times Insight team this week. It featured a cavalier absentee Prime Minister, a misguided strategy of herd immunity, a failure to get to grips with testing, and the lack of protective equipment for doctors and nurses who are caring for virus victims. Ministers have disputed the detail, but the sense of a government out of its depth has only been exacerbated by the succession of broken promises by the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock.
The risks to the economy are clear, and, sadly, some of the financial initiatives to address these — so warmly applauded when they were announced by the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak — appear not to be working as well as intended. That said, the gravest risk now is that a premature easing of the lockdown could unleash the Covid-19 transmission that current measures appear to be restraining. In relation to a dangerous virus that spreads exponentially, ending lockdown now is a risk that is not worth taking. The second peak of the pestilence would be worse, both for health and for the economy.
Doves may be soft and ineffective, but hawks kill. Livelihoods are important, but lives come first.