Three things lockdown critics just don’t get

Here in England, the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, is under fierce attack from his backbenchers over both the four-week lockdown that is coming to an end, and the system of tiered restrictions that will replace it, which means that almost everybody will still be subject to heavy restrictions. These critics are, for the most part, very muddled. While I would not suggest that Mr Johnson’s management of the pandemic has been particularly competent, I do think his overall strategy is the right one.

Still, the critics are right about a couple of things. The first is that lockdowns will not eliminate the virus, which has been a realistic objective in Asia and Australasia. This is because, unlike them, we cannot seal off the country from people coming in. That would mean closing almost all airports, ferry ports and the Channel Tunnel. The trickle of people allowed in (including returning Britons) would be quarantined under guard. Goods would have to be picked from ports by drivers based in this country. It would make Brexit look like a walk in the park. No European country, or American one come to that, can enforce such a regime. It is remarkable that so many Asian economies, as well as Australia and New Zealand, are able to do this. Without having to deal with such a volume of incomers, it is possible for a rigorous test and trace system to stay on top of the virus. New Zealanders can now go to rugby matches and concerts without social distancing. The economic cost is substantial, but this regime seems to be popular with those that live there.

The second thing that the critics get right is that the costs of an effective lockdown are huge, in both jobs and wellbeing. and that the longer the lockdown goes on for, the greater the cost. But no supporter of lockdown suggests otherwise. They simply say that the alternative is worse. That is because of three things in particular that the critics mostly fail to grasp.

The first is that infectious diseases grow exponentially, and not arithmetically, unless you can impose restrictions that reduce the reproduction rate down to one or less. And that means being very restrictive: the virtual cessation of social life (England’s Tier 1 is not enough, current evidence suggests). If the reproduction rate is above one, then the disease keeps on getting worse, and will accelerate. The critics seem to suggest that there is some form of equilibrium to be found between the level of restrictions and the prevalence of the disease. So, for example, a high level of lockdown means, say, one hundred deaths a day, but a looser one means a thousand. If R is above one, however, there is no such equilibrium. The equilibrium is not a function of lockdown restrictions, but the achievement of herd immunity – which means that 70% or more must be immune (the widespread assumption being from having already caught and survived the virus), and so breaking the chain of infection. The cost of that is massive. In Europe levels of significant herd immunity have only been observed in Italian towns were the disease has killed 1% or so (see this article in the Economist).

And the second point that few critics grasp is that the damage wrought when the virus shows high levels of prevalence is about much more than a few extra dead bodies. The disease will reach a point where it is be seriously disruptive. That people can’t see this was driven home to me when a senior Conservative MP Mark Harper was interviewed on the radio. He trotted out the familiar trope than people were underestimating the costs of lockdown, which had to be weighed against the benefits. He gave star billing among the costs to reduced access to healthcare services during lockdown. And yet there will be no access to such services once the epidemic starts to overwhelm them, and it is fear of just that which is the main driver of lockdowns; without lockdown health services will be overwhelmed as sure as night follows day. And it won’t be just health services that suffer. Absenteeism will rise dramatically, disrupting all manner of services. And fear will keep at least 40% of the population at home, with the inevitable toll on mental health and the economy. Covid-19 is much deadlier than flu (or at least the strains of flu normally seen each winter), and cannot be weathered in the same way.

And the third point? It is simply not feasible to shield the vulnerable while letting those with a low risk of being seriously ill to get on with life as normal. The disease will strike down even younger and apparently healthy people; and it can inflict lasting damage even if you survive it. But the chances of serious consequences for most people are quite small (and for them comparison with flu has more validity). But the flip side to this is that many others are at serious risk: anybody over 60 or with many quite common health conditions such as diabetes or heart disease. I have seen an authoritative estimate that these are about 20% of the population. But these people don’t live isolated lives: they depend on contact to some degree with healthier people. These people also have to shield, to protect those they are close to. This group is not only very numerous (somebody has plausibly suggested another 20%), but it is much harder for such people to successfully shield themselves form the outside world. In the second wave of the epidemic, where vulnerable people have been much more successfully shielded than the first, there has been a clear pattern. Firstly younger people catch it, largely without serious symptoms. Then it is passed on to working people whom they interact with (shop staff, security guards, and so on). and from these it moves on to the seriously vulnerable. It is not enough to suggest that people should simply take the level of precaution that is appropriate to themselves. That would mean that many working people would have to furloughed and somehow replaced at the front line.

There really are no alternatives if you cannot seal the country’s borders Personally I placed high hopes on rigorous test-and-trace systems, such as those operated in Germany. We have not attempted anything like German rigour in the UK, instead going for massed centralised families with a high theoretical volume but almost no impact on the course of the disease. But even in Germany the system gets overwhelmed once the virus reaches a certain level, and you are back to lockdowns. Sweden’s rather laxer regime is sometimes mentioned as an alternative, but that is breaking down too. Its advocates had suggested that infection levels would fall in the Autumn as herd immunity started to impact. But it hasn’t, because in fact Swedes had been exercising social distancing to such an extent that not enough people were being infested (and with the economic and other damage that followed). If enough people had been infected their health systems wold have collapsed.

All of which is very grim, were it not for one thing: the fact that vaccines are on the way. We don’t know much about the various vaccines, beyond basic safety and efficacy. In particular we don’t know how much they would slow transmission of the virus. But they are enough to make huge difference and allow lockdowns to be eased. Quite why Conservative critics are still banging on with their complaints about lockdowns when relief is at hand is one of the pandemics’ many mysteries.

Joe Biden: cometh the hour, cometh the man?

I greeted the defeat of Donald Trump in the US Presidential election with relief rather than joy. It was the most important thing to be decided in these elections: but otherwise it was a poor night for the Democrats. That bodes ill for the success of the new administration. But perhaps the new President, Joe Biden, will rise to the occasion.

The first Democratic disappointment was the failure to suppress Mr Trump’s vote more than it did. In fact “suppress” is not the word: Mr Trump’s vote was huge. Victory depended on a series of narrow wins in key states: very similar in character to Mr Trump’s victory in 2016. Based on polling evidence, most people had expected something more decisive. The next disappointment was the Democrats’ failure to secure the Senate. This game isn’t over yet: it will be decided by the double run-off section in early January in Georgia, but the Republicans are favourites. But the Democrats fell short in a whole series of contests where they were expected to do well, and that was the pattern of the night. The Democrats hung on to the their majority in the House in Representatives, but went backwards. They did not make breakthroughs at state level either: important because these elections will affect redistricting for the House. Down-ticket Republicans polled more than Mr Trump.

If the Democrats couldn’t win big this year, when can they? Looked at strategically it the Republicans are winning the battle to be the natural party of government, albeit by a narrow margin. This should worry Democrats a lot. They have long been expecting a demographic dividend, as America becomes less white, and as older, conservative voters die off. Instead Republicans are managing to recruit amongst ethnic minorities. I don’t know what data on younger voters is, but I suspect it follows educational attainment. Less well-educated Americans gravitate towards the Republicans, regardless of race and age, it seems.

This bodes ill for the Democrats in 2024, and of Kamala Harris’s chances in that election if Joe Biden steps down, as expected. There will be a lot of soul-searching. Some want to go down a left-wing populist route, stoking up anger over wealthy elites rigging the system to their advantage. Such a strategy has worked in Latin America (though whether it has done poor voters there any good is another question) – but I don’t think it has traction in America, not least amongst those of Latin American heritage, for whom socialism is often a toxic brand, based on the record of Latin American socialists.

Beyond that, Mr Biden is going to find it very hard to govern. He needs the Senate to unlock major spending initiatives, or legal reforms, for example to health care, or reforms to make it easier to elect Democrats. Nothing in these election results is going to discourage the dominant no-prisoners wing of the Republican Party, represented by the senate leader Mitch McConnell, as well as Mr Trump himself. Republicans will suddenly rediscover their fiscal conservatism and stoke up worries about public debt, conveniently forgotten when Republicans such as Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush or Donald Trump have been in charge. The new administration will be undermined at every turn. And on top of likely control of the Senate, they have stacked the Supreme Court with conservatives. Mr Biden’s appeals for Americans to unite to tackle the country’s problems are entirely futile. Further, Republicans are trying to undermine his legitimacy by saying the election was “stolen”. The extreme partisan nature of US politics will continue.

So what does Joe Biden need to do? The critical things are to revive the economy, get on top of the virus, and put pressure on the Republicans. The economy is critical. Until 2020 this was looking good for Mr Trump. The acid test isn’t the level of the stock market, so beloved of the President, but whether the economy is running hot enough to push up wages and well as create a plentiful supply of less skilled jobs. Mr Trump’s success there doubtless accounts for much of the strength of his support. How much he was actually responsible for this, and how much he was building on his predecessor, we will never know. The virus, of course, is the test Mr Biden has set himself. On both counts luck looks to be on the new President’s. side. The first of the vaccines is coming good, and other promising ones are behind it. This is already having a positive effect on confidence. This means that he is not as reliant as he might of been on Congress to provide funding for the states. The second piece of luck is that the Federal Reserve takes an expansive view of its role in keeping the economy going, and should not jack up interest rates at the first sign of success.

What do I mean by putting pressure on the Republicans? His life will be a lot easier if a small handful of Republican Senators break ranks. It will also be easier if Supreme Court justices also feel a bit of political pressure to appear non-partisan. This dos not mean indulging in the culture wars (on abortion and such matters), which tend to polarise politics and rally the Republican faithful. It does mean keeping the heat up on healthcare and support for “seniors” and veterans. The Republicans aren’t having it all their own way. MrTrump is not going to disappear; surely the party’s stalwarts are going to tire of bowing and scraping to their monarch. Mr Trump is also likely to face a blizzard of lawsuits – though this is unlikely to change public opinion much.

The interesting thing is that of all senior Democrats, Joe Biden seems to understand what needs to be done best. He has it in him to empathise with the average working class Trump supporter. His campaign was very skilful. He is going to need all of that skill in the years ahead. But he knows that. Cometh the hour, cometh the man?

It’s all about R. Lockdown critics don’t understand exponential mathematics

Quite early in the Covid-19 outbreak, policymakers told us that the critical thing to understand about managing the disease was something they called “R”. This is the reproduction rate: the average number of other people that anybody that catches the virus will infect. If it less than 1.0 the epidemic will fade away. More than one and the disease spreads exponentially. Discussion of R then dropped from view, with people focusing more on the absolute level of infection (usually given as cases per 100k). That’s a shame because R is central to understanding what has just happened here in UK, which also applies to most of the rest of Europe with small variations.

In those the dark days of March, R was a horrific 2-3. That meant the disease was spreading very rapidly through the population. For a moment people thought that might not be such a problem: that herd immunity would develop, and the disease would slow down as the number of potential carriers was diminished. But there are two major problems with this. The first is that if the disease spreads rapidly, then health services (and other infrastructure) become overwhelmed, and there s substantial collateral damage. And that is exactly what happened in the Spring. Hospitals started to fill up, requiring them to clear beds; people with other conditions suffered, and Covid-infected people were pushed into care homes to make room for others, with appalling results. The death rate across the country shot up, and not just because people were dying from Covid, though frightening numbers were. The second problem with the herd immunity strategy was that nobody knew whether, or for how long, catching the disease would confer immunity. It was quite an interesting example, incidentally, of how basing decisions on evidence is not quite as robust as it seems. What do you believe in the absence of evidence? In Britain people believed, absent evidence, that face masks were useless and that you would get long term immunity by catching the disease. There is no rhyme or reason to it being that way round. Too often people who ask where the evidence is are just sticking to their prejudices.

I digress. The only sensible response to an R of over 2 was strict lockdown, which was implemented in Britain on 23 March. This was remarkably successful (it is puzzling why some people suggest that it wasn’t). R came down to about 0.7, and the disease was beaten back to manageable levels in most places. But what next? The government eagerly implemented a general relaxation, while maintaining a certain number of rules on social distancing. By this time few people were talking about R, and it was hard to know what aim of it all was. I think it was felt that the relaxation would take the R back up to 1.0, but no further, thus keeping the virus at manageable levels. It is probable that a lot of faith was being put in the Track and Trace system to contain outbreaks as they occurred. And yet the system they built was not designed to achieve that level of rigour, which needs tough local leadership and timely data, both of which were practically designed out of the system from the start. The result was that R crept up to about 1.5. Much better than before, but also pretty useless in terms of managing the disease. If R is over 1, then the disease will rise up to overwhelming levels much more quickly than people will intuit, because of the exponential way in which the disease spreads.

The government’s next strategy was one of local local lockdowns. The hope was that these would reduce R to below 1 in areas were the prevalence had become high. Over the last few weeks two problems have emerged, though. First is that even with these stricter measures R is above 1, and health services are under imminent threat. Second is that R is rising scarily everywhere else, and to beyond 2 in some places. That meant that most of the rest of the country wasn’t in fact that far behind the hotspots. Just what was going on here will probably not be known for some time. Perhaps people in Tier 3 of the lockdown system felt bolshy because they were being singled out, and did not apply themselves properly to lockdown. Perhaps people in Tier 1 felt they could relax because they weren’t in trouble yet. Anyway, it is very clear that the regional response strategy has failed. And so we are back to national lockdown.

But schools an universities are still open, and weariness is creeping in as businesses fail and savings run out. The death rate is much lower than before (the rate of excess deaths remains negligible) and this is being used to suggest that we should just “live with” the virus. Some conservative newspapers (the Telegraph and Mail in particular) opposing lockdown, even though their recommendations would sentence many of their readers, more vulnerable than the average, to an untimely and horrible death, or perhaps just a long-term deterioration of health. Such critics have failed to understand the logic of R. It is not about choosing an acceptable level of disease and freezing it there: it is about stopping the disease before it overwhelms.

So how on earth do you live with the disease and retain a semblance of normal life? The only proven way is the Asian one (there are many variations, shown by China, South Korea, Taiwan, Japan and Australia and New Zealand). This requires the disease to be stamped out, mainly through strict lockdown, for inward travel to be heavily restricted, and for any outbreaks to be stamped on hard. For some reason Europeans, and not just the British, seem unable to do this (even the Germans are struggling). It’s even worse for the Americans. Asians, and interesting this includes Antipodeans of European heritage, seem much happier to comply with busybody regulations. Not all Asians of course: Indians struggle, as do Indonesians, Philipinos and a number of others.

Absent the Asian approach, thoughts turn to the use technologies that are not yet available. Vaccines may not be the silver bullet they are for diseases like polio, but they could still throw enough sand in the wheels of transmission to stop R getting above one. Mass testing, talked up by the Prime Minister Boris Johnson, offers ways of identifying infected people so that they can be isolated. That raises all sorts of questions.

Locally I have found the most informative source about the progress of the virus comes from the government’s interactive map. I have watched the infection rate steadily go up, with white ares (very low infections) moving to green, and green going moving to blue (over 100 per 100k); in my local patch it is 171. We’re keeping our heads down.

It’s all very depressing. The most important thing to understand about the spread of infectious diseases is that it is exponential. None of the lockdown critics I have heard or read seem to grasp that. And only a few understand that the critical thing isn’t the death rate but the stress on public infrastructure, including, but not limited to, hospitals. In the end it’s all about R.

September: the virus strikes back

I still have not yet recovered blogging groove, as I settle down in my new home, and with family caring issues taking priority. So I am doing a consolidated look-back on the last month’s news again. If last time the central theme was the rise of Great Power politics, this time the theme is the virus.

After the Spring crisis passed, more or less, in the developed world (not so much in the US), people relaxed in the summer (or winter depending on your hemisphere). But the virus is coming back, with the world both better prepared, but less psychologically and economically resilient. The stress is showing.

The virus’s most spectacular victim was the US President. This drama is still playing out. What has emerged is interesting, though. Donald Trump has made a great show of not allowing the virus to affect him, being rarely seen in a mask. But in fact huge efforts are made to screen anybody that comes near him, with extensive use of a quick-turnaround test. But such measures only work so far, and if enough people come into proximity, the test is bound to have miss a few. A reception for his nominee for the Supreme Court appears to have been too hubristic.

Once Mr Trump was infected his behaviour stands in complete contrast to our own Boris Johnson. Mr Johnson soldiered on valiantly, did what the doctors told him, and went to a public hospital only when he had to, with treatment recognisably similar to any member of the public. Such a passive approach was not for Mr Trump. He quickly ordered the most aggressive treatment possible, and checked himself into and then out of an elite hospital. He now claims to have conquered the virus in days. We shall see. This probably reflects cultural differences between our two countries as much as personality. Many Americans, and especially the rich and powerful, struggle with the idea that they can’t take full control of their treatment, as is often the case with the UK’s NHS. Private treatment is available here, but, quite often the best expertise is tied to the public service, and Britons don’t like public and private to mix. It is one reason why nationalising health care is unpopular in the US, even if less well-off Americans have little practical control.

But what effect will this have on the US election campaign? Democrats continue to have reason for quiet confidence. A month ago they seemed a bit rattled, as Mr Trump had forced the narrative onto his own agenda: law and order. But the Democrats’ candidate, Joe Biden, is a seasoned campaigner, backed up by a solid team. He held his nerve. The riots subsided and soon the news was dominated by the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and the unseemly haste to replace her before the election. Mr Biden refused the invitation to stoke up the culture war on abortion, but instead moved the narrative on to court challenges to President Obama’s health care system, which many working class Americans now depend on. This was followed by the first TV debate, dominated by Mr Trump’s hyper=aggressive behaviour. Mr Biden was not given the rope to hang himself with, and the focus became the personality of the President, which the Democrats are quite happy with. And now Mr Trump’s infection has put the virus centre stage. Mr Biden’s poll lead seems to be holding up, and perhaps even increasing. Most Americans have chosen who they will vote for, and not a few have voted already. Everything that is happening seems to reinforcing those choices, on both sides, and making each side more motivated. As in the mid-term Congressional elections in 2018, that is mainly working for the Democrats. Can they seize the Senate?

But the biggest question to me is what will happen after the election, with the country so bitterly divided. Mr Trump doesn’t seem to care. But if Mr Biden wins, he will have a big job on his hands. He does seem to be aware of this.

Here in Britain, the UK government’s reputation is floundering. There is something curious about this. After its initial fumblings, and the appalling early death rate that resulted, the country’s record bears comparison with many of its peers. The record of the US is worse, and so is that of France, since June. Also the records of England (directly under the control of the UK government) and Scotland (mainly under the control of the devolved SNP government) is pretty similar. But Mr Johnson’s Conservatives have suffered much worse damage to their reputation. Mr Johnson’s style is ill-suited to the occasion, and, worse, he has surrounded himself with weak ministers, while more competent people remain on the sidelines criticising his record. There is a lot to criticise, of course, especially with the government’s failure to understand effective process management (with vastly inappropriate and over-centralised structures), and the lack of a clear strategy, as different factions vie to be heard. But others are making the same or worse mistakes and getting away with it. Mr Johnson is failing at the sorts of things politicians are supposed to be good at, as well as the ones for which they have little expertise. Many of theConservatives that voted Mr Johnson into office last year seem surprised; but most others are not.

So far the big winner from the crisis appears to be China. Although they too fumbled the early stages, with dire consequences for the rest of the world, their brand of totalitarian government has stamped out the disease and kept the virus at bay. Meanwhile everybody else is struggling: as they ease restrictions to let life go on as it should, the virus comes back, and the exponential dynamics of infectious diseases stoke. Still, some countries seem better able to handle the challenge than others. But it is hard to generalise. Herd immunity can be bought only at a very high price, in direct and indirect deaths, and debilitating “long-covid”, and may not last long-term anyway. But containment comes at a very high price too. A vaccine seems the best hope.

Why localism is key to test and trace

Sometimes you have to keep banging away about something. For some time I have been complaining that the government’s system for providing tests for Covid-19, and then for its approach to contact tracing, suffers from a fundamental flaw of process design. I see this being occasionally mentioned by others, but the idea hasn’t caught on. So I will say it again.

This is relevant because the testing regime seems to be in a state of complete dysfunction. The government is not being transparent about what is going wrong, a an issue which is not unrelated, so I’m having to join some dots, based on a flood of anecdotal evidence from people at different levels in the system that have popped up on the news. The system has been overwhelmed by a surge in demand. Whether or not this should have been foreseen is one question, but taking a step back and looking at the outcome prompts another. This excess demand seems to have caused the whole system to fail, so that while testing capacity is very high (the government claims it is higher than in most other countries), all, or most, of the tests are taking far too long to return results, which completely undermines their usefulness. I have heard experts suggest that if results take longer than 48 hours to be returned, then they are of little practical use. That sounds about right. Results seem to be taking much longer than this in the official system, or at least that which serves most users (I think hospitals are linked to a different one, which might be working a bit better). The problem seems to be at “Lighthouse” labs where samples are analysed. The government suggests that this is just a numbers game: these labs have a capacity and demand is in excess of it, leading to delays – which is perfectly plausible explanation and doubtless at least part of the problem. There are other stories of staffing issues as these labs are losing temporary workers as the university terms start, and finding them hard to replace.

How to manage this? The first response is to stop people taking tests through the booking system, by telling them that they are unavailable, or only available hundreds of miles away. One story is that the only way that people living in the London suburb of Twickenham can get a test locally, rather than one in Aberdeen (in the north east of Scotland), is to say that they are living in Aberdeen. This is causing an immense amount of distress, which is feeding back in complaints to MPs. The government is now trying to impose some form of prioritisation on tests to give this more rationality. But that will be hard going, with goodwill in short supply. There is a least one new Lighthouse lab in the pipeline, and the government doubtless is placing its hopes on this. Alas any relief is unlikely to last for long. The whole thing gets much worse when the need for contact tracing is brought into the picture, where similar problems are emerging, though not, excess demand. The whole damn system is flawed.

What’s gone wrong? The designers of the government system are bewitched by the idea of scale economies. The unit cost of a large scale system operating at full capacity is generally very low. And because covid tests are basically quite standard, at first sight the building of such high volume facilities looks like a sensible way forward. When the government suggested that the system would be “world-beating”, this is doubtless what lay behind it, as many countries have gone for a much more artisanal approach. But that is only one aspect of process design. The problem comes from how you manage the whole process from end to end (i.e. from the moment somebody decides that they need a test to the moment they get the result). The more steps there are in the process, and the more disconnected their management, the less efficient the whole becomes. This can seem quite paradoxical. Each part of the system can seem to be operating well, but the whole can be dysfunctional, and doesn’t seem to be anybody’s fault. The problem is compounded by the the government’s preference for the use of mass-sampling facilities. People are sent to drive-in centres that are able to process large volumes. But these are often idle and simply make the whole process more disconnected. The symptoms of such a disconnected “silo” based process design are very familiar. Bottlenecks, queues, delays, lost files, and all the while managers working frantically hard at their own little section in the knowledge the the problems are all somebody else’s fault. And managers blaming users for making unreasonable demands. There is so much at stake in the overall design that nobody dares point out that it might be better to scrap the whole thing and start again. Instead they work on fixes that ameliorate the worst problems but make the whole process more cumbersome. In this case designing systems to prioritise demand.

What’s the alternative? It is to create local facilities that do the whole job end to end, or as much as possible. Best of all is if the testing function can be integrated with a similarly localised system of contact tracing, all accountable to a local director of public health, part of local government. Where possible staff should be able to cover multiple jobs, rather than specialising in just small parts of it. This is more or less how it works in Germany, among other places. Such a system cannot solve all problems. It may not be able to overcome shortages in critical supplies (reagents for tests, and so on), though managers are more empowered to find work-arounds. How would it cope with excess demand, as is happening at the moment? It is superior in several ways. Firstly because managers are likely to have a better overview of the whole system, problems are more likely to be foreseen. Secondly bottlenecks are more easily fixed. It is easier to recruit two or three extra staff in a local centre than a couple of hundred in a centralised facility. And where there are problems, they will not bring the entire country to a halt. And finally communication with the end user is likely to be far superior, as they are much closer to a knowledgeable, human interface.

These principles have been well-understood since the 1990s (when I used them to reorganise processing operations that I was managing). Alas the government, and those it appoints as advisers, are far too wedded to the imperial silo-based model and seem incapable of understanding that they are dealing with poor systems design rather than a few teething difficulties. Doubtless the silo approach works well in some contexts. But not here. But quite why the lessons of the 1990s are so widely forgotten in 2020 remains something of a mystery to me – my guess is that managers and politicians have been distracted and beguiled by new technology.

The Lib Dems search for a new strategy

To be a Liberal Democrat in Britain is to experience long spells in the political wilderness, interspersed with short intervals of relevance. After passing through most of 2019 in one of those intervals of relevance, the party is well and truly in the wilderness now. What should it do?

It is worth asking what is the party for. It provides a political home for those who want a party which has liberal values at its core, rather than a peripheral part of a wider coalition (as is the case for Conservatives and Labour, and indeed Scottish Nationalists or Greens). It then seeks to advance those values, either by winning elections and taking political office, or by forcing other parties to compete for liberal votes, and so making them more liberal in their exercise of power. What are those liberal values? It is about individuals taking control of their lives as far as possible, regardless ethnic or national origin, or sex or sexual orientation. That’s how liberals are classically defined, and it matters in the current world because many prefer a political narrative that elevates the nation-state into something close to sacred, rather than a mere means to an end, and there is a widespread belief that multiculturalism has failed. But modern liberals have attached other beliefs to this classical core. One is a strong belief on the need to intervene to protect the environment, and another is the need for the state to play a very active part in the management of the economy, through the welfare state, public services, redistribution of wealth and regulation of private business. There is a further belief that political power should be distributed amongst international bodies, national government and local government. That makes them in favour of such bodies as the United Nations and the European Union, as well as much stronger regional and local government. Liberals (or at least those that the Lib Dems seek to represent) think that too much power is concentrated in Westminster, where often it is captive to an out of touch elite, even if that elite is often liberal in its instincts.

But there are people who believe in all of this who are members of the Conservative and Labour parties. The problem is that in these parties liberal ideas have to compete with others. Among the Tories the nationalist narrative plays very strongly; they overlook the unbalanced distribution of wealth and power; and they are reluctant to take on corporate vested interests for environmental protection, amongst other things. Labour is less concerned with individual empowerment and have a tendency to see the answer to all problems as being concentrating more power in national government. This was taken to extreme lengths under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. But it is perhaps a measure of success for the Lib Dems that both major parties are making a pitch for the liberal vote, and that many voters struggle to see the need for another political party. Answering that question lis at the heart of any Lib Dem strategy.

Which is why it matters so much to Lib Dem strategy what the other parties are doing. There are some in the party who think that the party should ignore the other parties to go full on with the promotion of liberal values, and so build a loyal core vote. Alas this can only be one strand in a larger strategy, and not the most important. For now Lib Dems are much happier defining themselves against the Conservatives than Labour. The Tories are controlled by radical ideologues, more interested in wrecking things that they dislike than in governing competently.

Labour is the conundrum. Its new leader, Sir Keir Starmer, has resisted defining a clear ideological path, concentrating his fire on government incompetence. The ideological legacy of his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, is slowly being pushed into the background. This creates a blank canvass onto which voters, including liberal ones, can project their hopes. This is not unlike Sir Keir’s most successful predecessor, Tony Blair. How do the Lib Dems compete?

The answer I most often hear is to this is locally. To win the next election Labour must climb a huge mountain. That journey would be slightly easier if they decided to ignore the Lib Dems in a few critical geographical areas and let them challenge the Conservatives there. And if Labour thought that the Lib Dems were picking off Tory votes that they would be unable to reach, then this semi-cooperative strategy looks more attractive. But at the same time Labour does not want to leak votes to the Lib Dems, and would prefer the party not to exist. There are something like 30 seats where Lib Dems are first or second placed and able to mount a credible challenge (they are second-placed in about 60 more – but so far behind that this hardly matters). In their current state the Lib Dems would happily settle for that.

That is all very well, but the party needs a degree of national strength and purpose if it is to present a convincing local challenge anywhere. To do so it needs to champion causes that the Conservatives and Labour are ignoring, but which are both popular and highlight the party’s values. Two lines of advance are often advocated. The first is to continue the party’s strident pro-Europe stance by proposing to rejoin the EU as soon as practical. Labour are anxious to win back Brexit-supporting voters, and so are making their Brexit challenge about competence and not principle. The trouble is that most people are thoroughly fed up with the politics of Brexit, and accept that the Brexit side won. Meanwhile the Conservatives are anxious to promote a narrative that the country is being undermined by Remainers who have not accepted the democratic verdict of the people. So a pro-EU strategy risks either flopping because it is too out of touch with the national mood, or, if it gets traction, of supporting the Tory narrative and distracting attention from government incompetence.

The second possible line of attack is to attract leftists disillusioned by Sir Keir’s prevarications. The party is already adopting a mild version of this strategy, through adopting a robust environmental agenda and talking up such ideas as universal basic income. And yet the party’s most promising constituency is soft Tory voters who find left-wing radicalism suspect.

So the party is not doing much of anything. That will do for now. Tory-inclined liberals are throughly disgusted with Boris Johnson’s government. Many voters are thoroughly suspicious of Labour. Sir Keir will have to break cover on economic and environmental issues; when he does so opportunities will open up for the Lib Dems.

The key is to find issues that show how liberal values favour ordinary people. To discover what these might be the party needs to listen more, as its new leader Ed Davey is doing. There are some straws in the wind. The Black Lives matter movement has shown how disappointed and frustrated people from ethnic minorities are that so much prejudice remains. The government’s struggles with covid testing and tracing are showing how nationally centralised systems are often ineffective, and that local centres should be given more scope to find their own ways and mobilise local resources. Grand government schemes to soften the blow of lockdowns are all very well, but far too many people, especially self-employed, are falling through the cracks. Can a narrative of diverse local communities working together to overcome local challenges be developed, to compete with the Conservative and Labour ones focused on winning national power?

The wilderness period will continue for a while yet for the Lib Dems, but there is always hope.

The world in August 2020: the dance of the Great Powers

I haven’t posted at all in August. This is mainly because my wife and I finally completed our house move to a village in East Sussex. We have been reunited with the bulk of our possessions after nearly four months of storage, and we have been unpacking figuring out what to do with them. Then came choosing and ordering all sorts of new things to fit our new house and lifestyle; getting to know the neighbours has been constrained by social distancing, but there has been some of that too. It just hasn’t felt appropriate to take time out to do some blogging. Besides I quite like to take extended periods off for reflection. I’m sill not sure what direction to take the blog. I’ve had two main ideas. One is to try to dig a bit deeper to develop some ideas in series of essays. The second is the opposite: to fire off quick opinions on the issues of the day. Of course I can do both. I’m going to try the second idea first, by reflecting on the month that has just passed.

The pandemic gets messy

The biggest issue of the day remains the Covid-19 pandemic. In the developed world the good news is that death rates have plummeted (outside the USA). But infections remain persistent, which makes loosening restrictions much harder. The exponential nature of infectious diseases means that things can quickly get out of control. Not enough people have caught it to confer herd immunity, and it looks likely that immunity isn’t conferred for long periods after illness anyway. Meanwhile the impact on jobs and normal life has been heavy, and could get worse as measures to head off the worst, such as paying people to do nothing, run out of steam. Difficult decisions pile up on governments and members of the public, and everybody, across the world, is struggling. Apart from trying to head off another wave of nasty, slow deaths, the biggest worry seems to be the effect this is all having on children’s education, closely followed by how to rebuild economies as people realise (or not) that the we can’t go back to how things were before.

The US election: is Trump catching up?

The month started with US President Donald Trump trailing his Democratic challenger Joe Biden for November’s presidential election. It ended with all sorts of experts from both sides saying that Mr Trump is closing the gap with his relentless focus on law and order, following riots in various US cities over police racism. The betting now has the two contenders nearly even. The hard evidence for this catching up is rather thin so far, so we await polling based on the month end, after the republican convention. Doubtless both sides have their reasons for talking up the President’s chances, but I remain sceptical. Compared to four years ago, many more people have already made up their minds. Those that have plumped for Trump will be cheering him on, and remain on fire. But Trump sceptics will have seen nothing in his transparent politicking and outright lies to persuade them to change their minds. Mr Biden seems to be holding his nerve, and appears to be well-advised. Mr Trump, on the other hand, remains his own worst enemy. Still the polls don’t have to narrow by very much for the election to become quite close, such is the built-in Republican advantage. But this is no rerun of 2016.

Belarus: spheres of influence

The big idea of the moment on the political right (taking in some on the left too) is national sovereignty and the primacy of the nation-state, with a reaction against supranational structures and treaties. Alas, just as it did in the 19th Century this soon morphs into an international system based on a small number of “Great Powers”, surrounded by minor powers, satellites and colonies who are not fully independent in any practical sense. Each Great Power demands its sphere of influence, where other Great Powers must keep their noses out. This is evident in Belarus, where there is a popular uprising against a rigged election and a dictatorial regime that has been in power for too long. But Belarus is, more clearly than any other country, within Russia’s sphere of influence. The rest of the world seems to accept this, and are keeping out of it. This is bad news for the people taking part in the uprising. President Lukashenko’s support in his security forces looks strong, and the Russian government do not want the uprising to succeed. They only want to weaken Mr Lukashenko’s regime so that they are less able to resist Russian influence, which doubtless involves making the Russian oligarchy richer. Belarus’s claim to be an independent nation is probably the weakest in Europe, after all; it only won independence from Russia by accident.

China: victim culture

Another Great Power seeking to undermine the independence of others to further its interests is China. Like Russia (which feels it was shafted when its communist regime collapsed in the 1990s) and the USA (where Trump supporters are convinced that their country has been taken advantage of by all and sundry), this assertiveness is driven by a strong sense of historical victimisation. In China’s case this is based on abuse by colonial powers in the 19th Century (it did not achieve Great Power status and was treated as fair game, by the values of the time) and then subjected to a decade of attack by Japan from the 1930s, in which it was devastated. China’s sense of victimhood has more historical validity than Russia’s or Donald Trump’s. But victim mentality is hard to turn into mature, constructive engagement and long-term success. The country is demonstrating its contempt for Western liberalism by crushing dissent in Hong Kong (where nobody questions its sphere of influence). Its subordination of all to its national interest, and its willingness to bully and bend rules, including its tolerance of cyber attacks from within its borders (or worse) have raised security fears for equipment supplied by businesses based their, and any data they might get their hands on. This is causing costly commercial disengagement with the West, not helped by Mr trump’s paranoia. It has now also deeply antagonised the other Asian giant, India. It is hard to know where all this is going. Personally I’m not as convinced as most commentators by the country’s unique combination of central party control with rampant commercialism, with the former increasingly taking priority. There are distinct financial instabilities which even China’s highly competent management may be unable to control, and the rest of the world is slowly ganging up against it.

A revitalised European Union

The EU hit a low point early in the year, as the advance of Covid-19 made it look irrelevant, and Britain’s exit diminished it. But the institution advances in times of crisis, and release from the Brexit saga seems to have invigorated it, as well as fresh leadership within the Commission. Its scheme to deliver collective relief for the Covid crisis broke new ground, especially with the issue of collective debt. The usual Anglo-Saxon sneerers (like the New Statesman columnist John Gray) predict the EU’s imminent demise, but, not for the first time, the institution lives on. The flaws of the nation-state system may not be evident to these critics, but it surely is to the EU’s member states. But it is sobering for British Europhiles like me to realise that the EU’s step forward has been made much easier by the UK’s departure. shared debt would have been a very hard sell in Britain’s political climate, even if Brexit had been headed off.

Brexit endgame

But Brexit isn’t done yet. What will happen once Britain ends its transition period from leaving the European Union on 1 January 2021? Negotiations seem deadlocked, with both sides blaming the other for intransigence. They may well both be right. Britain’s light-headed government as a strong belief in cobbling things together at the last minute, and does not want to end up as appearing to be an EU satellite. It hankers after status somewhere in between being a Great Power, where it develops spheres of influence, while not being in a minor power, where it would be in somebody else’s sphere of influence. There is no sign that this has been properly thought through, and so what it is prepared to compromise on. But the EU is behaving decidedly in the manner of Great Power which doesn’t mind denting a neighbour’s sovereignty for its own convenience. But a no-deal would be very costly to both sides, so the betting is that a way will be found of saving face.

Britain’s essay-crisis government

Britain’s Conservative government’s approach to Brexit, leaving everything difficult to the last minute and trying to bodge through, is reflected in everything it does, and the results aren’t pretty. The most egregious example in August was the collapse of its attempt to replace A-level and GCSE exam results with a moderated system of teacher assessments putting the overall results in line with previous years. Instead there has been massive grade inflation, and doubtless injustice as some teachers were more generous with their assessments than others (though, of course, this may be the case with exam marking too). The government had plenty of time to prepare, and yet walked straight into the elephant trap, relying on moderation by algorithm rather than human intervention. This partly reflects the managerial approach of the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, who celebrates his light touch, but abhors competence and dissent amongst his ministers. But it goes deeper. Britain’s political class has for a couple of generations become political specialists, with little experience of serious organisation and management beyond election campaigns. The civil service is little better, drawing a critical distinction between “policy” and “implementation”. Civil servants take pride in specialising in the the first, and assuming that the second can be dealt with by separate implementation specialists. In the real world policy and implementation need to be in a close feedback loop which separation makes impossible. And when the government (in both political and civil service guises) asks for help from practical people, it usually asks the wrong ones: people from big business or the major consultancies that support them. Big business succeeds by making things simple and employing economies of scale; public services are in the public sector largely because the have to deal with human complexity, for which this approach is ineffective (otherwise the private sector would already be handling them). The government’s sub-standard Covid testing and tracing regime arises from the false application of big business wisdom.

Ed Davey: the new Lib Dem leader

The British Liberal Democrats chose a new leader, Ed Davey, who comfortably beat his rival, Layla Moran. I know them both quite well. The party went for the experienced Ed, who was a coalition minister. Many of Layla’s supporters had hoped to put those coalition years, with their student tuition fees and benefits cuts, behind them. But many members had joined precisely because they thought the coalition was a worthy project. On being chosen, Ed said that the party had to “wake up and smell the coffee”. A rather tired clich√©, but he is right that the party needs to broaden its appeal beyond an opposition to Brexit that tipped into taking sides in a culture war. Like the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, he seems to want to make competence centre stage, as the Conservatives seek to distract the public from their failures with cultures wars. But will the party be crushed by Labour? Or will Labour seek to operate in a sort of partnership depending on relative local strength? The answer to that depends on the party’s local strengths, and relatively little on the leadership. Meanwhile there is a lot of quotidian work to be done to make the party’s national infrastructure more effective, after years of crisis management have created dysfunction . The same can be said of Labour, but, as a smaller party the job is much easier for the Lib Dems. The party’s President, Mark Pack, and Chief Executive, Mike Dixon, recent appointments both, are up for this patient work – the signs are that Ed is too.

We need to talk about class

We hear a lot about racism in politics. But we don’t hear so much about another form of prejudice that is arguably just as important, and indeed adds an important dimension to the understanding of racism: social class.

What do I mean by social class? It is quite difficult to pin down exactly: it reflects combinations of social circumstances, such as education and where you live. Social class confers advantage to some and disadvantage to others, and to gaps in mutual comprehension. For example there is total exasperation in the Labour Party between middle-class metropolitan liberals and conservative working class union members. There is a lot of evidence that working-class people suffer disadvantage, for example in the job market. Middle-class people are often clueless about how to deal with this, except by creating abstract talking points such as “social mobility”, and trying to make everybody middle class like them. Middle-class privilege goes largely unrecognised.

Funnily enough, I have often heard the assertion that British society is riven by class distinctions which have barely changed over generations, in a uniquely British way, in contrast to both European neighbours and former colonies. But this goes hand in hand with outdated stereotypes of what class looks like. This divides society into upper, middle and working classes. Upper class people are thought of as landed aristocrats, middle class people as suburban professionals and working class people as blue-collar workers. All are predominantly white, and the common mental picture cleaves to old-fashioned gender stereotypes too. In fact social class has changed radically over the last few generations, and the divisions in British society are not particularly unique to Britain.

Changes to working classes have received some recognition through the work of Claire Ainsley, author of The new working class: how to win hearts, minds and votes, who is now working for Sir Keir Starmer, the leader of the Labour Party. Much of the modern working class is from ethnic minorities or are recent immigrants, many are in insecure job contracts, and the women are as likely to be working as the men. This analysis has to be taken seriously, but it may distract from more important dynamics that affect working classes as a whole.

The new upper class is perhaps better understood. This is the elite of the super-rich. The new aristocracy is no longer so closely tied to the ownership of land, but instead to big business. It has deep political influence in nearly all political systems, from the United States to China, and is doubtless behind the erosion of capitalist competition. But we should not exaggerate its influence either: western democracies (and the Chinese Communist Party, come to that) retain powers to hold it in check.

It is the new middle classes that seem to be the least understood. They are as heterogeneous as the new working classes, but I know of no work comparable to Ms Ainsley’s trying to get to grips with its complexity. The artist Grayson Perry observed two very different middle classes in a television series exploring class. On the one hand he talked to the anxious inhabitants of a suburban housing development, keeping up with appearances and ever-changing fashions. On the other there were self-confident liberals who didn’t care what others thought of them. And what about those young metropolitan Momentum activists creating Labour’s collision with the party’s working class roots? They clearly feel that society is stacked against them, for example for property ownership, and yet they are university educated and have access to professional careers.

Two forces in particular are shaping the new class landscape. The first is economic. Working class livelihoods have always been vulnerable to advances in technology. Advances in manufacturing and office technology has shrunk the number of traditional working class blue- and white-collar jobs, replacing them something more rootless. This has militated against traditional working class solidarity and union organisation, and reduced both pay and job security. The second is the massive expansion of education. Educational standards have risen across the board, and the availability of university education has increased dramatically. This has opened up access to middle class work, both expanding its extent, and making it more precarious. Meanwhile immigration has served to backfill working class roles from families that have transitioned to middle class. The interaction of these forces is complex and their effects are not well understood. In my opinion (I am getting a bit ahead of the evidence here) it has created a big problem of what might be called middle-class privilege (though my mother would have objected to that use of the word “privilege”, which to her was loaded with a sense of responsibility). If you are born into a working-class family it is much harder to make your way into a good middle-class life than it should be, based on ability. And in particular if you make a poor start in your educational career it is much harder to make progress than it used to be. Meanwhile the living conditions of working class people don’t get enough attention from the political class, making life harder than it should be.

Let me illustrate the new class dynamics a few examples. The first is about language. Grammar and, to a lesser extent, spelling serve a linguistic function to reduce ambiguity. But the opprobrium attracted by bad usage is totally disproportionate to this usefulness – it is surely used as a means of maintaining a class filter. If your grammar and spelling is a bit weak, you are liable to be dismissed as not being up to standard, even if you communicate quite clearly. I speak as somebody that enjoys linguistic pedantry – but I have to be careful it doesn’t get in the way.

A further example is the use of educational qualifications to pre-select job applicants for interview. This doubtless makes sense in some cases, but it is applied much more widely than it needs to be. When recruiting myself I tried to disregard qualifications, especially if the individual had a significant work track record. That track record, and understanding how the individual goes about their work, was to me much more important. Indeed overcoming a poor educational start is a sign of ability. And yet sifting by educational qualifications is deeply embedded into our job market without regard to how appropriate it might be.

A revealing linguistic tic is the habit of middle-class people calling working-class jobs as “low-skilled”. This has rightly been called-out during the Coronavirus crisis in the case of care workers, but it remains pervasive. It demeans working-class people, who work often requires a lot of skill, but not of the sort you get through a university degree.

Class cuts through racial politics. The most egregious racism comes from white working class people – who think that non-white people (or immigrants) are being given an unfair advantage. This may be well-known, but few seem interested in finding out what drives these feelings – it is easier to put it down to working class ignorance. A different class dimension affects the Conservative government’s narrative on racism. Led by middle-class people from ethnic minorities (like the Home Secretary Priti Patel, or the Downing Street adviser Munira Mirza), the message is that a lot of the fuss about racism comes from a victim mentality in many non-white people, which can be overcome if they engage more constructively with society at large. This has led to a spectacular parliamentary spat between Ms Patel and Labour minority MPs with a more working-class background, who complained about being “gaslighted”. The truth is that the experience of racism for ethnic minority working-class people is very different from those from middle classes. The current fuss is driven mainly by a cry of pain from working-class non-whites.

And then we have the case of university tuition fees. These are an attempt to move the cost of university tuition to those that benefit most from it – a push back against middle-class privilege. But those middle classes are often enraged by them – hence Labour’s promise to abolish them at the last election. Their argument is that state-funded university tuition improves access to it and hence social mobility. But this is a bit like the Conservatives’ attempts to address the high cost of housing by subsidising first-time buyers. The substantive way to improve lives of working class people is through making their work better-paid and more secure, and to reduce the cost of life’s essentials, such as housing. There is at last some sign that both Conservative and Labour politicians are starting to recognise it (I wish I could say the same for my own Liberal Democrats, who have become something of a middle-class ghetto – though not irretrievably).

That is welcome. But politicians need to address two further aspects of the class system. The first is fairness – ensuring that people from working class backgrounds are not disadvantaged by prejudice. The second is empowerment – to give all communities, working-class or middle-class, more say over their lives. One big cause of working class dissatisfaction is that they feel sick that things are done to them without their consent. This was ably picked up by the Leave campaign in the Brexit referendum. But politicians are better at exploiting anger than dealing with its causes.

Deadly and contagious, this virus is reshaping our society

When the pandemic started to seriously intrude into our daily lives, in March, my view was the it might accelerate some changes, but it was being overplayed by some commentators as a society-changing event. My view is changing. And it is changing because the virus is proving so hard either to beat or to live with. It just won’t go away. In this week’s statement the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, made some steps towards acknowledging this. But many people are still in denial.

It is too early to develop a clear view of how this pandemic is evolving. But I can see at least three phases. The first phase is over. This saw the initial emergence of the disease, and immediate hard lockdowns to try and contain its spread, alongside the mobilisation of the health systems. In East Asia and Europe, and in some parts of America (such as New York) this strategy has succeeded in preventing or stemming a rapid advance. Elsewhere weak health systems or perverse political leadership means that the disease is still spreading rapidly. But that aside we are now in an awkward second phase. The lockdowns are being eased, but alongside this the disease is making local breakouts. It is becoming clearer that restrictions on our daily lives cannot be relaxed fully. Even if the disease can be stamped out in some areas, it remains prevalent in neighbouring ones, and the threat of it returning ever-present.

We still don’t know enough about the virus that is causing all the trouble, how it spreads, and its effects on the human body. But some aspects are becoming clearer. The first is that it is deadly. It does not seem to affect many of the people it infects, and some people seem to think that it merely hastens the demise of people already at death’s door. And yet 20-30% of the population appears to be vulnerable in most places, and it has the capacity to double the death-rate, or more. Hospitals become overwhelmed and unable to deal with other health conditions. The second aspect is that it is highly contagious, much more so than other viruses that are deadlier to the infected (such as ebola). Just how contagious is unknown, but we do know that super spreading events occur, where dozens of people are infected by a single individual at once. Being indoors seems dangerous, as does being in proximity to people who are exhaling heavily, such as people singing, shouting or exercising. Wearing masks seems to be a significant help in reducing infection risk. What makes the virus so much of a problem is this combination of lethality and contagiousness. We are conditioned to deal with diseases that are highly contagious but not so deadly (like most flu) or deadlier but much less contagious. To these two known aspects there is an important unknown. Does catching the disease confer immunity to it? There is a widespread assumption that it does, meaning that we can expect herd immunity to arise at some point, when most people can’t catch or spread the virus. But the emerging evidence is troubling. Antibody tests show low rates of prevalence even in places where the disease has been widespread. And there are reports of people being infected multiple times. A second unknown is how quickly we can get an effective vaccine. There has been impressive progress, but plenty of reason to be cautious.

So where does that leave us? Developed societies have no choice but to try and contain the disease. This means changing behaviours to reduce the risk of catching it. This arises partly through public policy and partly through private choice. As I said in my previous post this means that many people are going to avoid social gatherings indoors, including going out to pubs and restaurants. The more prevalent the disease at any time and place, the more such measures have to be taken. The best we can hope for is containing the disease to low prevalence, allowing quite high levels if freedom, but stamping on local outbreaks as they occur. This is being done most successfully in East Asia; in Europe Germany is the main large exemplar. But even this is far from normal. The big problem is that we are going to have to live with this disease for a year at least and probably a lot longer. This has profound consequences.

The main consequence is in the world of work, and in the economy generally. There are two main aspects to this. First is that sectors that rely on close social contact and free movement are going to shrink, perhaps drastically. This includes hospitality and travel. The second is that productivity in most sectors is going to be dented as health precautions take effect. This will inevitably reduce the standard of living. Prices will rise faster than pay; taxes will probably have to rise to curb excess demand and inflation. All this is too much for most people to take on all at once. Many are still trying to negotiate with the virus. I hear owners of indoor gyms complaining about not being allowed to open, like other businesses are. And yet an indoor gym must be one of the best spreading environments conceivable, after a mass indoor choir.

So how did Mr Sunak face up to this huge challenge in his budget statement this week? Pretty well in the circumstances. The most important thing is that he is pivoting from trying to keep old jobs alive (e.g. through the furlough scheme) to creating new ones, in particular focusing efforts on younger people, whose livelihoods are most at risk. His generosity towards the hospitality sector with his VAT scheme and meal discounts may look hopeless against the tide of events Рbut it does demonstrate some empathy towards one of the sectors most under pressure, which could reduce the short-term trauma somewhat. His £1,000 bonus for firms that retain furloughed staff until January looks harder to justify. It is hard to believe that it will make much difference to job retention, and yet it is estimated to cost huge sums. Surely it would have been better to top up benefits for the out-of-work. His reduction of stamp duty on property purchases looks like an expensive sop to party donors Рthough I personally stand to benefit.

But, as most people see, this is only a start. In the pipeline are more job losses and business failures, which will bring more problems in their wake. There is also an upcoming crisis in local government finance, as central government support to meet the extra costs of the crisis is woefully inadequate, and the role local government needs to play in combatting the virus is becoming ever larger. This will be the third phase of the pandemic, as the economic crisis deepens, while the struggle to contain the virus continues. Conventional economic management tools are not going to help as much as they should be. A lot of the problem is restriction to the supply side of the economy, while demand is suppressed by fear as much as lack of funds – so boosting demand simply risks creating inflation or a currency crisis. However job creation in public services: health care, social care and education, looks like a sensible way forward. Lower productivity means more people will be needed in these sectors. A rebalancing of the economy from private to public sector will surely mean tax rises in due course, but with no shortage of liquidity in financial markets the government can probably defer some of the hard decisions.

And meanwhile the public will have to confront some hard truths. The virus shows that the free-wheeling individualism at the core of western societies has its limits. It is not sustainable to suggest that individuals can judge the health risks for themselves, since by spreading a lethal disease the consequences of their actions will mainly be felt by others. The failure of so many people in Britain and parts of America to wear masks in public shows how far we have to go. We have something to learn form the East Asians. But not China. That is another story.

The two worlds of post-lockdown Britain

Joss Bay Broadstairs 31 May 2020
Joss Bay Broadstairs 24 June 2020

On Monday the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, happily announced a tranche of relaxations of England’s lockdown restrictions, to be timed for 4 July. The public weren’t going to wait, flocking to the country’s beaches to take advantage of a few days of sunshine. I took the first picture here in Broadstairs, Kent on 31 May, thinking it was crowded (we had become used to this beach being deserted), but look at yesterday by comparison. The country seems to be making a dash for normality. Disappointment lies ahead.

The relaxations come after some hefty lobbying by businesses, who are experiencing huge strains. They highlight a legitimate concern, as many jobs are under threat as businesses face the danger of folding. Public finances are under strain too, though by how much and why remains a matter for debate. But the problem is a deadly virus for which there is no vaccine or cure, not overzealous lockdown regulations. So if you don’t want to risk catching the disease, and the prospect of a horrible death, just how safe are you being made to feel? The country is dividing on this question.

I have heard quite a few lobbyists for the hospitality industry on the radio. For the most part they do not inspire confidence. They are anxious to abolish the two-metre social distancing rule, but are reluctant to explain how they can still be safe. Some of them even grumble about the idea that they would have to keep records of all those attending their establishments, even though this is an obvious quid quo pro to relaxing distancing requirements in the high-risk settings that most of them obviously run. One expert offered a list of potential mitigations for reduced distancing: not facing people, masks, reducing time of contact, low noise levels so that people can talk softly. Not much of this helps if you are indoors in a pub or restaurant, although if customers are seated at tables only with members of their isolation group, then at least you won’t be facing others. To be fair some hosts on television are doing a better job of explaining themselves: instead of whinging about the rules they are showing viewers all the precautions they are taking to make people feel safe.

But a lot of people don’t really care. They are fed up with confinement, and note the reduced prevalence of the disease, and therefore the reduced risk of catching it. Many are younger and fitter people who feel less at risk of suffering badly. Many also draw confidence from other countries where restrictions have been relaxed. They miss two aspects of these overseas examples. First is that in the more successful countries they applied relaxation after they had beaten back the disease further than England has, and that even then they have had to identify and manage local outbreaks. And England’s track and trace infrastructure inspires little confidence that it is up to this task. The second is that in other countries that have relaxed (notably in some states of the USA), they are moving headlong into a relapse. Two things about the epidemic strain our intuitive way of understanding the world. First is the time lag between picking up the disease and diagnosing it, then between diagnosis and hospitalisation, and finally between hospitalisation and death. The second is the exponential nature of the spread, and the way a small number moves very rapidly to a big one and so the need to intervene when it feels too early. This is what led to some countries failing to take the disease seriously enough until too late. It is clear that the US President Donald Trump, ever the intuitive leader, struggles with both these things.

But while one, very conspicuous, group are making a headlong dash for normality, another, usually older and more vulnerable, group remain very frightened. They are staying indoors, so remain nearly invisible. But this applies to my household and many others that I know. This is both good and bad news. The good news is that if this group stays out of trouble, then the most vulnerable people will be protected, keeping hospitalisations and death rates down. The bad news is that this large number of often quite high-spending people will not be the free-spending agents needed for a full economic recovery. And if infection rates start to rise, they will become even more scared.

All of which gives an impressive of a government that doesn’t think things through. If it wanted to tempt older people back into shops and other facilities it needed to work a bit harder to reassure them. The words are there but the body-language isn’t. For example the government says that the 2-metre rule is replaced by “one-metre plus”. The plus is meant to suggest alternative mitigation, and yet this has been totally drowned out in the messaging. If it had been combined with a clear directive for people to wear face coverings in virtually all indoor settings, then it might have been easier to convey this. Instead they promote the idea that the risks are reduced so you don’t need precautions like masks; of course they don’t say that, but observing people around me that seems to be what is happening. And the problem about masks is that everybody needs to wear them for it to work. It is no use if just the worried people do.

Still, the government has probably bought itself a month or two before any obvious problems emerge. And then it looks likely to face a twin threat. A faltering economy as the worried sit on their savings while government support schemes, like furlough funding, run their course. And rising infection rates working their way slowly but surely through the system, beyond the country’s capacity to contain it on a local level. I really hope I’m wrong.