Here we go again. At 6pm today, Wales goes back into lockdown. On 23rd March, the UK Government assured us this sort of thing was necessary to protect the NHS and save lives. That was while patients in Bergamo gasped for breath in hospital corridors and the Government’s scientific advisors projected that half a million Britons might die. In March, locking the country down still seemed draconian. Now, it just looks plain crazy.
In March, we didn’t know that the survival rate of people infected with Covid-19 was around 99.8%. Despite the WHO telling us so repeatedly, a lot of the British public still don’t seem to get this. The project fear propaganda exercise has been far too successful. Young, healthy people –for whom the annual risk of dying from Covid-19 is well below the annual risk of taking one short motorbike ride– prefer to be shut into their homes than take that trivial chance with the grim reaper.
Try it the other way round: “You have two choices”, says a man who has come from the Government and is there to help. “Your first choice is that you get on the back of this motorbike and ride from Pembroke to Tenby”.
“Oooh, no thanks,” you say. “I don’t like motorbikes. Noisy, dangerous things. I might fall off and get killed! Choice two please!”
“Thought not,” says the man in uniform. “Very sensible, if I may say so. Now, you’re to stay in your house for the next four months. Your holidays are cancelled. We’re closing your business and all the local pubs, and you’ll be paying for it all for the rest of your life.”
Peculiarly, the reaction to this from the people of Wales wasn’t “Wait, what?” Instead, the majority meekly accepted the Government’s decisions, put up the shutters, hand-painted signs calling anyone who fancied a weekend break ‘rats’, and enthusiastically joined in the collective shaming of Covidiots; this century’s (equally morally abhorrent) version of the WW1 white feather.
Through the first lockdown, you could see how the Government might get away with it. Like some Arthurian golden age, economic historians will look back in wonder at the period post-2008, when financial magicians and wizards roamed the land and money could be conjured up –just like that– by clicking indeterminable numbers of zeroes into existence on an electronic balance sheet.
Rishi Sunak makes a good Merlin, and for now we still live in the age of magic money. While the state continued to pay people not to work and the spring sunshine beamed down, it was easy enough to think this wasn’t a bad way to live. Sitting in a sunlit garden beats spending eight hours a day shut in a grey office doing drudgery for the DVLA or the local authority. Those whose jobs aren’t drudgery, or whose profits depend on others doing drudgery in their employment, were always likely to see the lockdown differently.
With that generous, if esoteric, financial assistance from the state, most businesses could just about survive lockdown happening once and stay in business. We still don’t know how many actually did fold, because the furlough still hasn’t quite finished. We see pubs, restaurants, cinemas, theatres, gyms and leisure businesses shutting their doors all around us; unable to cope with the uncertainty of knowing whether or not they will be allowed to open up from one week to the next. This is just the beginning of the bad economic news; wait and see what it’s like when the newly-unemployed come off furlough to join the dole queues, locked-down businesses keep on going bust hand over fist, and the tax take from a weakened economy isn’t nearly enough to service the debt.
Anyone who says these businesses don’t matter –that human lives should always come above the economy– is just wrong. There are always lives that could be saved, but at a cost no reasonable society should be prepared to pay. We are doing the equivalent of banning all road travel to prevent road deaths, or prohibiting alcohol to stop cirrhosis and liver cancer. 170,000 people in the UK die of heart disease every year; 44,000 of them are under 75. If Covid logic prevailed, we would shut down every chippy and burger bar, rather than letting people selfishly chase profit by selling fatty food.
Another total lockdown in Wales isn’t necessary, and Mark Drakeford must know it’s not affordable, even if he thinks he can just shove the whole tab over to Merlin. Until now, the public have lapped up irrational, authoritarian solutions to the Covid-19 crisis –only expressing dissatisfaction that the measures weren’t strict enough– but public tolerance of being locked down indefinitely can’t last. No-one should be daft enough to think that a two-week ‘firebreak’ means what it says. Firebreaks stop fires; starved of fuel they burn themselves out. Lockdowns don’t just keep the fire lit: they store up vast tanks of fuel for the future.
Covid-19 isn’t going away. An eventual vaccine is likely to provide only partial protection. The nation is going to have to reassess its tolerance of risk, because the risk of a larger death toll from Covid-19 is nowhere near as serious as the risk of monetary meltdown, a tsunami of unemployment, a mental health crisis, and turning the country into an artistic and cultural desert. As Freddy Mercury advised: Get on your bikes and ride.