Tuesday , September 29 2020
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Unlockdowned

And just like that – and for no discernible reason – Britain’s period of enforced social isolation came, sort of, to an end.  Schools in England are open once more.  Public transport services are getting back to normal.  Non-essential workplaces which promise to maintain a two metre distance between employees can now reopen.  Only large gatherings, including in bars, restaurants and cinemas, remain off limits – not that you would know it from the scenes at English beaches this weekend.

For the young, the risk from Covid-19 has always been low.  And so as long as you are not bothered about spreading the virus to older and more vulnerable people, ending the lockdown will be of little concern.  The reality, though, is that health wise, nothing has changed.  The UK is still recording 2,000 new cases per day and the R0 remains dangerously close to one at the end of nearly three months of lockdown.  There is no sign of a vaccine on the horizon.  Nor – unlike some US medical facilities – has the UK developed a treatment protocol that addresses Covid-19 itself rather than the flu/ARDS diseases that the UK medical authorities anticipated (and which had been cemented in place by groupthink).  Covid-19 is not – it turns out – primarily a lung disease, but rather a dangerous autoimmune condition which enters the body through the lungs in order to infect the blood vessels. 

This might have been apparent much earlier if the UK government had not removed Covid-19 from the list of notifiable diseases on 19 March; meaning that autopsies and post-mortems were no longer required.  This, no doubt, emboldened the UK’s Chief Coroner to issue guidance on 26 March which effectively removed death from Covid-19 from corners’ oversight.  As former professor of   pathology and NHS consultant pathologist, Dr John Lee explains in an article for the Spectator:

“… at a time when autopsies could have played a major role in helping us understanding this disease, advice was given which made such examinations less likely than might otherwise have been the case. The Chief Coroner issued guidance on 26 March which seemed designed to keep Covid-19 cases out of the coronial system: ‘The aim of the system should be that every death from Covid-19 which does not in law require referral to the coroner should be dealt with via the [death certification] process.’ And even guidance produced by the Royal College of Pathologists in February stated: ‘In general, if a death is believed to be due to confirmed Covid-19 infection, there is unlikely to be any need for a post-mortem examination to be conducted and the Medical Certificate of Cause of Death should be issued.’…

“The first rule in a pandemic should be to ensure transparency of information. Without it, errors can go undiscovered — and lives can be lost. We will never be able to find out for sure what this disease was like, or what it did in the early stages of the crisis. One of the unappreciated tragedies of this epidemic so far is the huge lost opportunity to understand Covid-19 better.”

Given that the most widely-publicised treatment for Covid-19 was to have a tube thrust with some force into the lungs before being connected to a ventilator – a procedure that will have serious health consequences for the 49 percent who survive – it is little wonder that many older and more at risk people chose to die in their care homes rather than opt for – most likely – dying alone in an overcrowded hospital facility.  Meanwhile, many more of us – particularly those with the luxury of being able to work from home – chose social isolation weeks before the UK government got around to making it official.

In the absence of a vaccine or a safe treatment, and while so much about Covid-19 remains unknown, why is the UK government so keen to end the lockdown?  To quote a former US president – “it’s the economy stupid!”  As Robert Shrimsley at the Financial Times explains:

“No one will admit it openly but there has been a decisive shift in the British government’s approach to coronavirus. In the minds of ministers, the pandemic is no longer primarily a health crisis; it is now principally an economic crisis.

“Of course, it has always been both but the move to ease lockdown, when there are still thousands of new cases each day, shows that economic considerations are weighing more heavily.”

The government, though, must convince the public that some kind of health milestone has been passed.  Otherwise, the very people that it needs to return to the shops to borrow and spend the economy out of the doldrums are simply going to stay at home:

“The difficulty is that, for economic activity to pick up, people — especially the middle-aged and older — must still believe the government is putting health first…

“This shift in emphasis does not signal the end of the pandemic. It means ministers think the NHS can cope and that the cost in lives is bearable. These are the hard choices leaders have to make.

“But the notion of a choice between economy and health is a false one. Not only might a recovery be derailed by a second spike but demand can be stalled by health fears. Recovery will need more than the young. If the virus looks under control, the urge to return to normal may overcome lingering fears. But if cases rise again, many will minimise their exposure. Demand will stay low.”

Early responses to the relaxation which came into force today do not look promising for the government.  Sean Coughlan at the BBC reports a low attendance at England’s newly opened schools:

“Head teachers are reporting ‘highly variable’ levels of attendance, ranging from 40% to 70%, as primary schools in England bring back more pupils.  Geoff Barton, leader of the ASCL heads’ union, says the return has been ‘very mixed’ – with some schools not yet open and some children staying away…

“A survey from the National Foundation for Educational Research suggested almost 50% of children would be kept at home by parents. Mr Barton’s early feedback suggests ranges of between 30% and 60% of pupils not attending school.”

Another BBC Wales report finds anecdotal evidence that many of those in the most at-risk “shielding” group will keep themselves isolated despite a slight official relaxation of their lockdown.

This reaction appears to confirm Steve Schifferes’ sentiment in a Conversation article at the beginning of May:

“The government has exceeded its expectations in changing our behaviour. It is the fear of the pandemic that has made the lockdown successful. Lifting it will not remove that fear, which will continue to have a profound effect on consumer and business confidence, and economic output across the whole economy.

“People will be reluctant to return to work or go shopping while the virus is still around. They will also hesitate to take on major financial commitments, such as buying a house. And businesses will be reluctant to make major investments, or even re-employ all their furloughed workers while the economic outlook is so uncertain.”

Looking at historical pandemics, Schifferes believes that we could be in for a decade of despair in the wake of Covid-19:

“History also shows that pandemics have a long-lasting and severe effect on the economy. Looking at 15 major pandemics in Europe, from the Black Death in 1347 to the 1918 flu, researchers found that interest rates – and therefore investment – was depressed for between 30 and 50 years following an outbreak. This suggests that a “V-shaped” recovery – where economic growth returns to its previous level by the autumn – is highly unlikely.

“Already the coronavirus has reduced economic activity by 30%, more than in the 1930s great depression, with unemployment rising to levels last seen in the 1980s during the Thatcher years. The cost to the government of preventing a deep depression will far exceed the already unprecedented sums it is currently spending on providing short-term relief.”

Short of reversing the emergency lockdown powers and forcing people to go out and spend money, it is difficult to see how the government digs itself out of the economic hole that it now finds itself in; especially if it attempts to return to the neoliberal economic orthodoxy which sees balancing the government books as the primary aim of government.  Both Schifferes and Shrimsley argue that prolonged government spending is the only means of preventing an economic catastrophe.  According to Shrimsley:

[Chancellor] Sunak is planning a July mini-budget to stave off a collapse in demand. Investment in infrastructure will be bolstered by new green projects, such as boiler scrappage schemes, to create jobs and help the UK towards its net zero carbon targets. His ideas for the leisure sector include more drive-in cinemas.”

This, though, is a drop in the ocean compared to what will have to be done.  As Schifferes explains:

“To boost demand, the government will have to provide higher – and unconditional – benefits for the millions who will be unemployed, maybe moving towards a minimum income guarantee. It might also provide temporary government jobs to improve our social and physical infrastructure, such as happened in the New Deal in 1930s America, which improved schools and hospitals, built national parks and planted trees, and took plays around the country.

“With industry on its knees, the government must play a bigger role in increasing investment to boost demand and ensure that our economy becomes more productive and more resilient in the long term. This must include major investments in our run-down public services, especially research and education, health, and the tottering under-funded social care system.

“And the government will have to take a much more active role in the labour market, heavily subsidising jobs and training to encourage growth in the key sectors needed in the future.”

The underlying problem with this return to Keynesian economics is that it is occurring in an entirely different context.  When Roosevelt introduced the New Deal in the 1930s – and when western European states adopted similar policies in the late 1940s – the economy was in the process of shifting from coal to oil as its primary energy source.  In World War Two, American land-based oil fields provide 6 out of every 7 barrels of oil consumed (Venezuela provided most of the remaining barrel).  The vast oil deposits of North Africa and the Middle East were yet to be developed.  Most of the world’s conventional oil was under the ground.  The exploitation of that energy source between 1953 and 1973 produced the greatest period of economic growth in human history.  Unfortunately, most economists look on this highly abnormal period as the economic “normal” that we will somehow return to if only governments open the purse strings and begin spending in the real economy instead of continuing to enrich the handful of godzillionaires in the financial economy.

There is not enough of planet Earth left to reproduce the economic upswings of the post-war years.  Instead, even before Covid-19, global oil extraction peaked in 2018.  Most of the big conventional fields are in decline; and the response to the pandemic is bankrupting most of the unconventional extractors.  In the absence of a more energy-dense fuel than oil, we will not be doing a new deal of any kind, still less a green new deal based around non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies which depend upon fossil fuels at every stage of their manufacture, deployment and maintenance.  Most worryingly, without the diesel supplies required to power the global economy’s heavy machinery, industrial agriculture and transportation network, we will soon be seeing far more people dying from famine than have succumbed to Covid-19 so far.

As you made it to the end…

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