Daniel Hannan is a writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.
You’d think that the Covid-19 outbreak would place us all on the same side. We all want to minimise fatalities. We all want as little suffering as possible in terms of job losses, preventable poverty and, indeed, collateral deaths caused by the diversion of resources. We all have vulnerable relatives and friends.
There are, in short, no sectional interests, no divergent goals. Though people may disagree about ways and means, you’d expect the nation to be wrapped in a rare feeling of solidarity.
You’d be wrong. The country remains as tribal and splenetic as ever. Conspiracy theories circulate about the prime minister having faked his illness or deliberately contracted the coronavirus. Matt Hancock is preposterously accused of insulting the NHS workers whose praises he sings every day. Newspapers pretend to be scandalised because Robert Jenrick drove medical supplies to his self-isolating parents.
We might dismiss all this as unrepresentative noise from the permanently outraged – and, to some extent, it is. A lot of the criticism follows familiar patterns: Left versus Right, Remain versus Leave. Most of the vitriol aimed at the Government, for example, comes from people who already hated the Tories.
Even so, there is a palpable asymmetry. The viciousness is directed overwhelmingly at those who want to relax the shutdown, not at those who want to extend it. Some of this has to do with existing prejudices. It so happens that many of the advocates of a less restrictive regime were already loathed by the Left: Peter Hitchens, James Delingpole, Toby Young, Fraser Nelson.
But that alone doesn’t explain it. The European country that is implementing policies closest to those advocated by these columnists is Social Democratic Sweden, which believes that it is sticking to the letter of its medical advice while others have gone further for reasons that have more to do with public opinion than science.
Sweden might turn out, when all this is over, to have made the wrong call. So far, though, it shows no sign of rushing to copy its neighbours. On the contrary, the neighbours are starting to copy Sweden. Schools are reopening in Denmark and parts of Germany, as are shops in Austria and the Czech Republic. Even Spain and Italy have relaxed their rules. It may soon be Britain, rather than Sweden, that is the outlier.
The diversity of national approaches should allow us to study what works. Instead, many commentators seem affronted that Sweden should have chosen to stick to the advice of its epidemiologists – or, as the Washington Post put it “to experiment with national chauvinism”.
The insults hurled at Sweden are as nothing next to those aimed at its British admirers. Question whether we are getting the balance right and you will be called at best callous and at worst a eugenicist. Toby Young has been driven to set up a kind of samizdat website for anyone who thinks we might be overreacting.
To point out that trade-offs need to be made should be to state the obvious. In a situation like this, every option carries costs. Do nothing and people who would otherwise have lived will die for want of treatment. Close everything and we would all starve.
The challenge is to find the optimum point on the spectrum between those extremes, the point at which the most bearable restrictions yield the greatest gains. Almost everyone can see that we need to keep chemists open, and almost everyone can see that this doesn’t apply to (say) nightclubs. But what about the large intermediate space? Might we reopen other shops, as they are starting to do across Europe, provided they can limit the number of customers inside? If shops, what about hairdressers? Or restaurants? Or schools?
These questions are not just legitimate; they are urgent. The forecast published yesterday by the OBR is of a depression beyond anything we have experienced: a 35 per cent drop in GDP this quarter and a two million rise in unemployment. This would, as Kate Andrews points out, be “worse than the financial crash and both world wars”.
Think about what those figures mean for people’s health and happiness. Think about the impact they are already having – not yet on journalists and commentators, though that will come, but on the cash-in-hand economy. Or if you really are determined to tell yourself that there are some Tories who care only about “the economy” as an abstract noun, rather than as a measure of people’s welfare, consider reports that NHS leaders are worried that “we could end up losing more ‘years of life’ because of fatalities relating to non-Covid-19 health complications.”
Simply to write in these terms is to invite derision. A common threat, especially in the form of a pathogen, flicks switches in our brains, making us less tolerant of dissent. Proponents of a harsher crackdown, in such a situation, have a psychological advantage.
If this were true only of the media debate, it wouldn’t much matter. Hitchens and Delingpole can look after themselves. But if you think that governments – even scientific advisers – are unaffected by public opinion, you haven’t been watching.
We all have cognitive biases. I certainly do. I was initially too blasé about this bug, having seen the same pattern of alarmism with bird flu, swine flu and others. Even now, I find myself reading cheerful news (for example, studies suggesting that quite a few of us may already have had the virus with mild or zero symptoms) more readily than gloomy news (for example, suggestions that recovering from Covid-19 does not guarantee immunity). I sometimes have to make myself read the surveys that challenge my prejudices.
I am subject to these biases, and so is everyone else. In government, the biases pull overwhelmingly toward harsher restrictions. Ministers know that they will never be criticised for playing it too safe. They know that the polls show huge support for restrictions. They know that people are more concerned about a present threat than about future economic hardships, however terrible.
That is not to say that Ministers are wrong to be cautious. They have more information in front of them than I have. We should simply be aware of the pressures on them. If there are good reasons to delay easing the restrictions, there are also bad ones, such as “The public won’t wear it”, or “We can’t decide this until the Prime Minister is back” or “Let’s wait a little longer just to be sure”.
Recall why the shutdown was decreed in the first place. It wasn’t to defeat the disease; no one can do that in the absence of a vaccine. Rather, it was to buy time to build NHS capacity. We wanted to be sure that our hospitals would not be overwhelmed, as had tragically happened in parts of Italy. Yet the talk now – not only from commentators, but from ministers – is about “turning the corner” or “winning the battle”.
The first objective is laudable: no one objects to the idea of paying to ensure that we have enough ventilators and critical beds. The second objective is impossible, because the disease has no cure.
The only test that counts is whether we can be confident that the peak of the infection will not overwhelm our system – in other words, that people will not die for want of medical attention. Ministers now suggest that they are indeed confident about it. If so, a phased easing of the restrictions should start right away.