Truth, Hope and Coronavirus

Here's a refreshingly honest piece by Daniel Finkelstein in The Times which argues there is no easy way out of lockdown.

In effect, there is no Tory Party road back to normality or safety, just as there is no SNP, Labour or Lib Dem route map either. 

"Because, in truth, the choice we face now is no different to the one we faced at the beginning of the lockdown. The more we relax restrictions, the more people will mix. The more people mix, the more people will get it. And the more people get it, the more people will die."

But what people can expect is for politicians (and commentators) to put their hobbyhorses to one side and concentrate on doing the right thing without using every opportunity to advance their own narrow, self-interests by trying to steal a march on their political opponents.

Truth about the virus is better for us than hope

We cling to the idea of light at the end of the tunnel but we must face the fact there are no easy ways out of lockdown

By Daniel Finkelstein - The Times

You recall what Winston Churchill said after El Alamein? “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” Well, where we are now is not the end of the beginning. It’s just the beginning.

Yesterday, like every day for the last fortnight or so, there were calls for the government to show “the light at the end of the tunnel”. But what if we aren’t far enough through the tunnel to see any light? The government can’t tweet light into existence. It can’t announce light. “And Boris Johnson said ‘let there be light’” won’t work.

The most popular phrase at the moment is “we need an exit strategy”. It’s one of those political statements that always gets people nodding, whatever the crisis. No one ever goes on Newsnight during a war and says: “I’ll tell you what we don’t need, Emily. We really don’t want to be bothering with one of those exit strategies.”

Yet perhaps you have noticed that people only start calling for exit strategies when they realise that it is impossible to create one, or at least one that doesn’t involve horrible choices and huge gambles. Which is pretty much the situation we are in now.

And it’s not that unusual.

A commonplace when discussing military intervention is for people to say that we mustn’t go in until we know how to get out. Yet the truth is that you almost never know what your exit is going to be when you enter. You do what you have to do at the beginning, and then cope with the consequences. America didn’t appreciate, when it was pulled in to the European conflict after Pearl Harbor, that it would still have troops in a superpower stand-off in Berlin 50 years later.

So we went into lockdown to tackle Covid-19 because, at the time, we felt we had to. It didn’t mean we knew how to get out. It didn’t mean there was a way out. Indeed, there is every sign that the government realised this problem from the beginning and that’s why it hesitated.

One of the ironies of this crisis is that the pat historical judgment about governments making big decisions without an exit strategy may be reversed and ministers could end up being criticised for worrying too long about an exit strategy instead of locking down earlier.

At the beginning of the pandemic, this country faced an awful choice. If there wasn’t a vaccine and it wasn’t possible to track and isolate every person who got the virus (and to do that for ever), then most of us would eventually get it until we reached the point of there not being enough people left to spread it to.

In the absence of more effective treatment, ministers concluded (rightly, in my view) that the surge in the number of deaths — perhaps as many as 260,000 — would be intolerable. So they decided on a policy of strict social distancing. Until . . . well, until what?

Because, in truth, the choice we face now is no different to the one we faced at the beginning of the lockdown. The more we relax restrictions, the more people will mix. The more people mix, the more people will get it. And the more people get it, the more people will die.

The public can hardly be told: “You won’t die if you get it now because we’ve passed the peak so it’s too late for you to start dying”. Or “your mixing isn’t lethal now because we’ve already had a lockdown”. Viruses don’t work like that. It will carry on until it’s been stopped by a vaccine or ameliorated by treatment or until it has been caught by all the people who are going to catch it and killed all the people it’s going to kill.

And this is true for every country, whatever stage of the contagion they are in. It’s one of the reasons it is pointless to start making judgments about how well or badly Britain has done compared with other countries. We don’t know because we are all only at the beginning. We will only know when it’s over.

So what everyone euphemistically calls an open debate about an exit strategy is really just the same discussion we’ve been having since March. How long can we socially, economically and politically sustain a lockdown before we decide that the cure is worse than the disease?

Right now, we are at the Steve Jobs stage. Richard Rumelt, the leading authority on strategy, interviewed the Apple founder in 1998 after Jobs had returned to his troubled company and cut back all of its peripheral activities. He’d staunched the bleeding and stabilised the company but it was still vulnerable and tiny. What was he going to do now, asked Rumelt. Jobs smiled and replied: “I am going to wait for the next big thing.”

We can still wait for the next big thing and hope. Maybe a vaccine will come quicker than we expect. Maybe some of the treatment trials will be more successful than we think. But this period of waiting and hoping can’t last long. We are going to run out of money to support the economy, apart from anything else. The chances of the scientific cavalry riding to the rescue just in time are relatively small.

What we face is less the need to find an “exit strategy” than the need to make a vast, difficult moral choice. It’s possible that the proposed new app and the sort of contact tracing and testing that Jeremy Hunt proposed in The Times yesterday might enable us to achieve some sort of control. And shielding the vulnerable might help. We must do absolutely everything we can. But if we relax, some people, and maybe many people, will die as a result. And we can’t be confident about how many.

We may decide that this is unacceptable or that we won’t be able to revive the economy anyway in such circumstances. But if so, we would be saying that we have to keep restrictions almost indefinitely.

This is a decision we all need to make together, and one we all have to live with. The prime minister should not only share all he knows with the leader of the opposition, he should directly involve Sir Keir Starmer and his shadow cabinet in the decisions, seeking their assent. And he should level with the British people about the nature of the choice we face.

People need hope, but they need the truth more.

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