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By June 29, 2020 Read More →

COMMENT: what the bunglers in Downing Street should have done to tackle the Covid 19 crisis (and a recession would have been avoided)

Since my last opinion piece on the damage ‘the airheads of Downing Street’ (as I called them – in the best traditions of sensationalist journalism in order to get attention) have done to the economy and business in general in their handling of the Covid-19 crisis I have received a lot of feedback. Mostly in agreement but also in the mode of ‘don’t knock the government – get behind Boris’ or ‘what would you do instead?’ criticism.

On that point I’m not in Government and don’t have the full information – but I’ll have a stab at it. There is general agreement the Government didn’t take the virus seriously at first and were slow to lockdown and issue warnings. And they and the previous administration failed to implement their own 600-page National Security Risk Assessment (NRSA) last year which said that a new pandemic virus could lead to tens of thousands of deaths and costs running to more than £2 trillion. If only Covid-19 would cost that little. The report also cited the need for stockpiling of personal protective equipment (PPE), set up plans for contact tracing and proposals to manage a surge in the death rate.

Even worse the findings drawn from the 2016 Exercise Cygnus were also ignored. That exercise predicted a Covid-19 type flu virus could kill tens of thousands of UK citizens unless actions were put in place in the event of an outbreak. It again cited the need for preparations including PPE stockpiling and an increased ITU capacity. The Government and its advisors shelved the report on a number of grounds including national security and cost. In other words Downing Street were warned what could happen.

It has quickly emerged from evidence around the world that the quickest way to spread Covid-19 was in confined and overcrowded spaces and the most vulnerable were the elderly and those with underlying health issues including obesity. So banning people from heading out to the great outdoors, parks and the seaside went against the collective findings and against common sense. But the Government allowed people to squash into a tube train in London to go to work without wearing a mask and failed to provide the PPE considered essential for health and care workers advocated in their own report in 2019.

The economy has seen a massive drop in productivity, hundreds of thousands are out of work and many businesses have collapsed or will collapse once furloughing ends due to the shutdown. That shutdown did not need to happen in the way it did. If the Government had said these are the facts about the disease – you must make up your own judgement about the risks – then as in Sweden much of the economy would have continued. And as the statistics show Sweden kept most of its economy open and still has a lower death rate per million people than the UK.

We’re adults, every day we make a judgement about crossing the road, sending our children to school, going to work, doing a bit of DIY or simply going to the shops. To have these endless and pointless rules about whether we can play village cricket, go to the swimming pool or attend an open air theatre performance is ridiculous. If the owner of a shop feels they cannot safely open as nearly all their customers are over 80 then fine. But if a cinema feels their Saturday matinee will be seen only by teenagers then why can’t they decide to open as long as common sense precautions are taken. And we know what those are – keeping a distance, washing your hands and wearing a mask if it gets crowded. Allow the public to decide if they want to go to a pub which may or may not be busy – and allow the manager and staff decide if they feel it’s OK – was and is the way forward. Anyone who cannot work or sees their income disappear should have been given a universal state income for the duration of the emergency. Instead the Government have been paying millions of workers (some in highly profitable firms) 80% of their wages under the much abused furlough scheme. That left around a million workers such as freelancers without any help at all. As the furloughing scheme ends we are already seeing firms who took advantage of it collapse when they could have continued trading albeit on a reduced level.

As for schools again – leave it up to the head teachers and governors to make their own decisions whether to open or not – rather than issuing orders from above. The same also goes for Universities, Colleges and a whole host of institutions – again they are all over 18 so let them decide once they have the facts.

For those who roundly agreed with me because I took a pop at Boris Johnson and the Conservative administration it’s not that I think they are really air heads – they just don’t live in the business world. They don’t have to worry about cash flow and whether there’s enough money to pay staff each month or if their main customer is about to go bust. Their salaries are safe and they have no money worries – unlike so many in business who are self-employed or gig from one job to another. But they do love making up rules and sounding important and making promises about track and trace – but then they are politicians – and that’s the problem, as this is not a party political matter.

If at the start of the crisis – in January not March – they had set up a task force that included the heads of the four UK Governments and representatives of business, education and health – they could have got their ducks in a row and immediately implemented the findings of the 2016 exercise and last year’s pandemic warnings. And the mismanagement which has cost lives, millions of jobs and many thousands of perfectly good businesses would have been minimised.

Harry Mottram

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