By Simon Gentry, Public Affairs
It began on Twitter, of course. Ignited by the usual suspects, those Tory MPs who’d define themselves as Libertarian, who had always been sceptical about government radically restricting people’s freedom. But it’s spreading now and it’s spreading quickly, almost like a virus.
In this case it’s not a virus, it’s the argument that lockdowns don’t work. That they, at best, merely postpone upticks in infection and push it down the road rather than eliminating the disease. These MPs argue that the economic cost is too high, and that mass unemployment and destruction of whole industries is unforgivable. Further, that in focussing so hard on Covid-19, millions of other medical interventions are not happening with catastrophic consequences for tens, maybe hundreds of thousands, of people. The consequences for education are no less dramatic, with almost every child in the country suffering and many schools and most universities in some degree of chaos. The question must be asked: Is the cure worse than the disease? And if it is, what are the alternatives?
The emerging view amongst a growing number of Conservative MPs is that the lockdown strategy has failed and has led to an economically destructive ‘safety arms race’ where Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland, Mark Drakeford in Wales and now Sadiq Khan in London are perversely incentivised to push for the ‘safest’ set of rules they can manage, knowing that the Government in Westminster – and English taxpayers – will have to pick up the bill. These MPs argue that Sturgeon, Drakeford, Khan and others are informally in league with the media and are playing politics with the pandemic, using it to pursue their own political agendas, primarily the break-up of the Union.
The alternative strategy they are beginning to coalesce around would see the country switch its resources and effort towards shielding the old and the vulnerable – ‘shield and protect’ – whilst encouraging the young and able to go back to life with sensible precautions. They point out that the number of people under 65 dying from (not with) Covid-19 is very small and that the cost on every other level is absolutely huge. “We need to find a sustainable way of living with this disease” is the phrase that is repeated time after time.
The first sign that this is registering with the leadership (although not perhaps with the Secretary of State for Health) was apparent this week when it became clear that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor had listened to SAGE’s recommendation that the whole country should go into a mini-lockdown, but decided against it, presumably because of the huge economic cost.
Now that the divide between SAGE and the politicians has emerged, will it progress to the point where the ‘shield and protect’ strategy becomes government policy, replacing the lockdown strategy? I was sceptical until officials in various parts of government, some very close to the key decision makers, began sending WhatsApp messages to the effect that we have to move on because economically and emotionally the lockdown strategy is unsustainable.
The idea that the current strategy has failed, is unsustainable and must be replaced by shield and protect has now travelled from the far reaches of the Conservative Party to the very heart of government. It is winning converts every day. Rising unemployment, stubbornly high infection rates and waning public support for the current strategy may make the change happen faster than many expect. Watch this space.