I am not an expert on corona virus. In that I am not alone. There are many non-experts on the internet, but in my defence I have not yet retweeted information received from a friend whose uncle once met a medical student, and who has the key to the problem. There seem to be two lots of serious experts – epidemiologists, who are essentially statisticians who know how things spread, and virologists, who understand how the nasty little buggers behave. We need them both, and they are full of interesting but worrying information. My nephew, a professor in this field, says that Corona is very unpleasant. Another virologist, said it was a tiny bit of protein surrounded by thoroughly bad news, and, rather like a security expert paying tribute to the courage of terrorists, expressed grudging admiration at its ability to spread and cause damage.
I will do what sensible people say, which is keep myself to myself (with my lovely wife, with whom there is no-one better to self-isolate). Like, I am sure, many people of my age – I’m 75 next week – I baulked at the description “elderly”. I have no pre-existing conditions (if knees don’t count), walk in the Peak District, play golf and go to the gym reasonably regularly. Heavens, I actually have a personal trainer. However, I had that first look in the mirror in the morning today, and I understood where they were coming from. Hunky has become crumpled, sadly, and some years ago, just about when incisive became grumpy. And the facts of differential death rates can’t be gainsaid. Psalm 90 gives us three score years and ten, and I’m already overdrawn on that account.
Which all creates a challenge (the modern cant word for ‘problem’) for the occasional blogger. What more can be said about our crisis ? The prospect is dreadful, and there is little to do but endure. Media, stripped of sport and entertainment to cover, go over the same ground day after day. The government announcements can be criticised, but all go in one direction, and schools will soon shut for Easter. It will be awful, but it will be over – maybe in a long time, but sometime. And when it is diminishing, we will be told that ‘lessons have been learned’.
Which is where I come in. What can we learn from the current crisis ? I think there are a number of things, which need to be considered by an independent major enquiry – a Royal Commission or some such – when the main emergency has passed. Lessons, indeed, must be learned, and here is my list. Others have started to add their two-pennyworth on lessons learned – here’s Polly Toynbee. I reserve the right to add to my bit as we march in lockstep down the Via Dolorosa:
- Outstandingly, we have discovered that austerity was a nonsense, and there is plenty of money when need arises. Corbyn’s reply to the recent budget speech was the most pallid and empty response I have ever seen from an Opposition leader, but even he could point that out. We need to spend now to avoid an economic implosion. In fact, we’ve needed to spend for years, to maintain the quality of our public services, especially for the vulnerable. We’ve been told for years that there is no magic money tree, that the budget deficit or national debt is the most pressing political issue, as the police and health services and social security wither under the ‘tough choices’ that the millionaires and billionaires in government make. Any plan to help our social services or public facilities would cause economic ruin, turn us into Venezuela or North Korea.
Now we find the truth. The deficit didn’t matter much, or at all – certainly not when counted against the losses from ten year’s recession, or a global pandemic. Macron can release E300bn and promise no firm will go under. Johnson can borrow 20% of the GDP. Trump can find a tsunami of dollars to help the Stock Market, to add to the tax cuts for the rich. Nurse numbers can be magically expanded. Hospitals built in two weeks, and health trust deficits eliminated. London’s homeless can be taken from the street and housed in two weeks. There was never any problem with any of this, and those who have spent ten years vandalising our public life by saying there was, need to hide in shame. The danger is that they won’t. They will say that we need further cuts in welfare to pay back the cost of the outbreak. For shame, for shame.
- Support needs to help the poorest first. 15% of Britons have no savings, and a third have less than £1500. Many work in what we have now discovered are vital jobs – care homes, cleaners, delivery drivers, checkout operators and shelf stackers, food process workers. They will be able to keep working, we hope. Others, many others, will lose jobs, particularly in travel and hospitality. Give them the money, and not through impenetrable regulation filled benefit ‘entitlements’. MPs looking for a cheap shot at the moment ask their opponents whether they could live on £94 a week. What they should be doing is putting forward a revised tariff of welfare benefits – maybe even a move to Basic Income ideas – so that we are no longer the Scrooge of Europe. A strong welfare state is important not just for supporting the poor, which it must, and better, but also in keeping spending up to help business.
- Of course we must also maintain the structure for a healthy economy, and that will mean working with the corporate world, but airlines and banks have well paid, smooth people who can argue their case. Help for them must be conditional on good behaviour – pay taxes here (as the Danes insist), link executive pay to average wages, invest in innovation and training, no zero hours or gig economy nonsense, no unpaid interns, get women and workers on the board, and give us, the public, shares for our help, not an IOU. There have been stern words on dividends and executive salaries, but overall it looks increasingly as if this was an opportunity missed.
- Small business will not be helped by soft loans. Any accountant can tell you that borrowing to cover lost business is not a good idea. Grants are the way to go. They can be clawed back in next year’s tax return if it turns out they weren’t needed.
- We must learn that we cannot run public services constantly at full capacity and minimum cost. It is striking to hear a historian on a documentary about the Black Death talk about our lack of ‘surge capacity’ to cope with a contemporary outbreak. Hospitals must have spare beds, schools & colleges spare places. Police can’t be cut back without affecting our sense of security and safety. Social care for the elderly should not be subject to minimum wage workers on fragile contracts. Staffing levels cannot be endlessly run at 100% utilisation.
Interestingly, this debate has recently entered the private sector. “Just-in-time” manufacturing processes that minimise financing of stocks is skating on thin ice, especially when those stocks are on a plane from Turkey or a container ship from the Far East. Passing risk to contract staff and the gig economy makes recovery harder.
- Local government is important when things have to be held together. Of course they can be annoying and inefficient, but they are where the buck stops. Family members who work in that area have struggled for years against budget cuts as they try to deal with troubled children, families without housing, flooded high streets, tough school catchments, choked traffic and despoiled environments. The budget cuts of the past ten years have been shameful, and even the faltering steps to restore local spending are under the control of the Treasury, not locally responsible councillors. Just treating them a bit better won’t be enough, and asking them to put in a bid that might please central government in a month’s time is just an insult. A national effort to rebuild local government, to engage them as partners in rebuilding disadvantaged areas, is essential.
- International cooperation is essential. I’ve banged on about Brexit long enough, but this is plainly not the time to leave European disease control organisations. And as for refusing to take part in procurement of medical supplies and ventilators, words fail me*. Anyone who tells me ‘we survived the Blitz’ – no, you bloody didn’t, and bombs aren’t infectious. We noted during the Brexit debate that fish know no borders, and neither do terrorists, and neither does pollution. We are discovering that viruses don’t either.
However, it may be time to look at globalisation – generally a positive factor in raising the world’s prosperity and pulling emergent economies forward. We need to recognise, though, that cheap isn’t always best. It isn’t sensible to depend on long international supply chains for medical supplies, and it is worthwhile having local networks which give security at the cost of a few pence. Look back in history – the support for agriculture came as a result of discovering, in 1939, how dependent we were on food from abroad. Watches carried heavy import taxes because an industrial and military country needs skilled instrument makers. I remember talking to a guy who worked for a US car company – Jeep – who complained of the difficulty of fixing problems when an inexpensive component was being sourced from South Korea rather than down the road. Interesting that President Macron has come to a similar view, and even Boris Johnson wants advanced non-Chinese countries to get together to coordinate industry. Four months after leaving a grouping of advanced industrial nations.
- There should be a school curriculum that can be studied at home, on-line, full of interesting material and stimulating lessons. Much of it exists already, but its dissipated all over the place. We have a national curriculum, and a common approach would help teachers, help home educators, help kids who miss school for whatever reason (in my case, a motorbike smash). If we’re worried about people missing out on education (it happens, Covid or not), then don’t cut adult and further education, the second-chance studies that so many have benefited from. Footnote: problems with awarding GCSE and “A” level grades in a lock-down would be much reduced if we had course-work – you remember course-work, that thing that Gove and Cummings abolished.
- And, to lower the tone of it all, let’s take a terrible revenge on those who have behaved badly. In the words of W. S. Gilbert “I’ve got a little list”. Richard Branson making staff take leave without pay despite his £4bn fortune, Britannia Hotels evicting staff at a day’s notice, Jhoots Pharmacy with its £20 Cal-pol, Tim “keep the pubs open” Martin, Easyjet paying millions in dividends whilst claiming taxpayer help, Philip Green with his offshore dividends and underfunded pensions likewise, and the rest. We can’t catch the little panic buyers, but we can boycott the big offenders. Please add to the list. This is not totally negative – many businesses have behaved well, and I’m glad people are noting them down too.
Lastly, I am flabbergasted that the government – and I guess this means any government – did not have a detailed plan for dealing with this situation, a pre-planned response that can be smoothly swung into action. We should not be having to think up ways to help minimise deaths and transmission, maintain incomes, control panic buying, resource health care, support schools and all the 1001 other details, off the cuff**. The current crisis is unprecedented, but not unpredicted. It looks a lot like bio-terrorism (I’m not suggesting it is, but the effects are similar). Did we truly have no plan for that ? If we didn’t, we need to make the construction of one an urgent priority for the post-Corona world, with the perils – nuclear breakdown, antibiotic resistance***, climate change – that we know face us.
*actually, they fail the government, which now says it didn’t get the message, or did get it and didn’t understand it.
** later addition – it is equally shocking that the ending of lock-down seems to have been thought up over a few days, rather than planned ahead. Even if there had been no planning before the outbreak, the government had seven weeks to sort things out. They ended up not knowing on Sunday whether lock-down was ending on Monday or Wednesday.
***we’re looking for a trade deal with the only advanced country in the world that allows farmers to fatten livestock with antibiotics.
Footnote (9th June): Reading this back after a couple of months, the obvious lack is any reference to the disproportionate effect of the disease on people from a black or other ethnic minority background. That’s because we didn’t know about it at the time. Even as I write, we don’t know why this effect is so striking. The two possibilities are (a) it relates to biological differences (like sickle cell anaemia – which particularly affects African or Afro-Caribbean people, or diabetes – six times more likely in those of South Asia descent) or (b) social factors – income, living conditions, employment, health care quality. My money’s on (b), for what its worth. What can I say except we need to find out and sort it.