ANALYSIS: Sir Ian Diamond, the United Kingdom’s mild-mannered chief statistician, cracked a joke six weeks ago which pretty much summed up Britain in 2020.
“This is becoming a nation of 58 million epidemiologists,” he deadpanned. “And the great majority of them, unlike myself, have the benefit of hindsight.”
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has the same problem: everyone’s suddenly an expert. And unlike the first coronavirus wave, where unity was strong and compliance with the rules high, the second wave is accompanied by deep division over the balancing act between health and the economy.
The rapidly worsening outbreak is on course to eclipse the first, which killed 60,000 people.
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There are at least 50,000 new infections each day and intensive care units could be swamped by late November. Johnson didn’t want a new lockdown but he had no choice on Saturday (Sunday NZ time) given the dire forecasts.
The month-long shutdown for England will come into effect from Friday (NZ time) after a parliamentary vote early next week. It only applies to England, as healthcare elsewhere in the United Kingdom is handled by the devolved governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The restrictions will see the closure of pubs, restaurants and non-essential businesses, including hair salons and gyms. People will only be able to leave their homes for specific reasons such as education, work (if they are unable to work from home), exercise and to shop for food.
A lot of criticism directed at the Prime Minister over recent months is unfair and ignores the tightrope leaders must navigate in the era of pandemic politics.
He was right, for example, to repeatedly remind a complacent public that a second national lockdown would be a “disaster” and inflict widespread “misery”.
That misery is often unseen: the London Ambulance Service is responding to an average 37 suicides or attempted suicides a day compared to 22 last year. Some 4.2 million children already live in poverty and hundreds of thousands more are at risk of joining them. The other day, the owner of my local café said she’d have to fire her loyal staff and close for good if restrictions were increased.
But Johnson put his hand up to lead and it is his job to make tough calls. Tens of thousands of lives hinge on decisions made inside Downing Street and there is little room for hesitation.
There’s a strong sense of déjà vu in the autumn air right now. Top minds warned in March that the longer Johnson waited to lockdown, the higher the death toll would climb and the harder it would be to ease restrictions.
That first wave claimed 60,000 lives, the worst in Europe. Another 85,000 could be lost during the second. That warning, along with alarming forecasts about hospitals being swamped by late November, has overwhelmed Johnson’s resistance.
You don’t need hindsight to see the government has made the same mistake twice. Johnson has once again waited too long. The signs were there for all to see.
In late September, the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies suggested a two or three-week ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown to break transmission and give contact tracers and hospitals a fighting chance going into winter.
Johnson didn’t agree. He couldn’t have even if he did, because the rapidly growing number of Conservative Party MPs fundamentally opposed to the concept would have unleashed hell on Johnson’s leadership and caused chaos when the measure came to a vote in the House of Commons.
Instead, he opted for a three-tiered set of restrictions for the worst-affected areas of England. On the very day Johnson announced it, his own chief medical officer said even the toughest tier would fail to bring down the surging infection rate.
Finally, in mid-October, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer publicly urged Johnson to embrace the circuit-breaker. The Prime Minister mocked the idea and labelled Starmer “Captain Hindsight” – a jibe that has not aged at all well.
Johnson caved on Saturday (NZ time) when presented with doomsday forecasts warning that infections were well over 50,000-a-day and the health system could be overrun by late November. More than 1000 people would die each day from early December onwards, the advice found.
That trajectory is not just morally and politically intolerable, but a diabolical outcome for the workers and business owners that Johnson understandably sought to shield. But in trying to protect the economy by delaying a lockdown, Johnson has probably inflicted even greater harm on it.
Wasn’t it obvious, in hindsight?