24 September 2020

Forget getting back to normal – let’s make the most of pre-vaccine purgatory

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Watching the UK reopening over the summer, it sometimes felt like the Government’s approach was determined by the dictum that “everything not forbidden is compulsory” (or at least subsidised).

One minute, Brits were banned from eating in restaurants or going to the office. The next they were given taxpayer-funded meals out and told “go back to work or risk losing your job”. The guiding principle behind these moves was to get us as close to business as usual as quickly as possible.

For a while, it looked like it might be working. Then cases spiked, it became clear Britain had not escaped the grim logic of the virus, and Boris Johnson responded with fresh restrictions.

For some, the new rules are too onerous. For others, they don’t go far enough. Wherever one stands, however, the terms of the Covid debate seem to be fairly well-defined: open versus shut, livelihoods versus lives, an unavoidable set off trade-offs, with getting back to normal pitted against restrictions that would drastically slow the spread of the virus.

But I’m not so sure that’s the right way to think about the choices the Government — and the country — face. An important distinction has been lost in an increasingly bad-tempered debate between the lockdown hawks and doves: the distinction between returning to normal and adapting to the new normal.

The conversation would be far more productive if we were focused on adaptation rather than restoration. In other words, the question the Government should have been asking itself over the summer was not “how can we get back to normal as soon as possible?”, but “what is the most economic activity that the country can manage with a reproduction rate at or below 1 and what can we do to help?”

That might sound like a pedantic distinction, but it scrambles Britain’s Covid debate in interesting and important ways. For all that the hawks see themselves as the pro-growth side of the argument, the impulse to “get back to normal” can do economic damage too.

Take mask-wearing. On this anti-Covid measure, the UK has been late to the party, lagging behind its European neighbours and the United States. But if you’re serious about maximising the amount we can do while stuck in post-lockdown, pre-vaccine purgatory, you should be an enthusiastic advocate of masking up. If you want to argue against mask rules on civil libertarian grounds, fine. But don’t also claim to have the country’s economic best interests at heart.

Popular though Eat Out To Help Out may have been, it encapsulates the problem with “back to normal” thinking. By subsidising indoor dining, the Government was encouraging an activity that is more risky than it once was. It may have been a lifeline for the restaurant industry, but there were other adaptation-friendly alternatives that would help Britain open up while keeping its reproduction rate low: facilitating as much outdoor dining as possible: a voucher scheme for food delivery, subsidies for space heaters, blankets, pods and coverings that might make winter outdoor dining more appealing.

Telling workers who can be just as productive at home to go into the office also represents a failure to encourage as much socially-distanced economic activity as possible. Yes, working from home will mean lost economic activity in city centres, but it will presumably mean more activity elsewhere. You hardly need to be an enthusiastic cheerleader for creative destruction to contemplate the possibility that the number of Pret A Mangers in Zone 1 in February 2020 is not a sacrosanct indicator of economic good health.

The insistence on preserving things as they existed at the start of the year is especially perplexing when the Government’s primary domestic policy goal is supposed to be a radical economic rebalancing. Why not focus on how to get the country from here to the economy you think it deserves, not the one it had?

The lockdown sceptics are right to say that we cannot put our lives on hold and wait for a vaccine. But that is why encouraging as much adaptation as possible is the sensible way of approaching the problem, making low-cost changes to our daily lives and hoping that does enough to avoid the need for more drastic measures.

Too often it seems like the Government is taking the opposite approach, doing the hard things before it has tried the easy ones. For example, the onerous Rule of Six was in effect before basic restrictions like mandatory masks for waiters and taxi drivers, while restaurants still only need to observe a one-metre rule rather than more stringent limits on indoor dining capacity.

Of course, there are more ambitious adaptations that would have a decisive impact on the country’s ability to live more normally with the virus: mass testing and a comprehensive system of track and trace. The Government should step up its efforts to implement these.

In the meantime, there are other steps, such as government-funded isolation for anyone who tests positive and would rather not infect their family, that seem to be frustratingly far from the top of the agenda. Whether or not Britain opts for any of these measures, the overarching point remains the same: the choice is not a binary one between hunkering down and returning to normal.

The Chancellor’s announcement on the Job Support Scheme – the successor to the much more generous furloughing – suggests ministers finally see the merit in policies that help businesses live with the virus, rather than just supporting them while they wait it out.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t really agonising moral quandaries. Different sets of values will lead to different answers, and I don’t envy those in government making such high-stakes calls with imperfect information. But it is exactly because of these gut-wrenching decisions that it’s so important to do as much of the easy stuff as possible.

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Oliver Wiseman is US Editor of The Critic

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.