As we come up to the second anniversary of ‘three weeks to flatten the curve’, the UK in 2022 feels a very different country to the one we all inhabited at the start of 2020. Whilst some changes, particularly in the use of technology, have arguably delivered an improvement for many people and businesses, there are many changes to our behaviour, perception of risk and the value of money which most definitely have not. Adding it all up, the minuses heavily outweigh the pluses, in terms of both our economy and public well-being.
Not so long ago, when we talked of spending billions, it really did mean something. The thought of spending tens of billions on HS2, for instance, made many recoil. However, we seem to have now become so desensitised to huge amounts of government spending that an arguably ineffective Test and Trace budget of £37bn receives relatively little attention.
As I write this, we are conducting around 2 million Covid tests a day. Even a conservative cost estimate of these tests at £20 each means we are looking at expenditure of £40 million a day on tests, that’s over £1bn a month to fund tests for a highly infectious virus which, for the overwhelming majority, presents symptoms akin to a mild cold. We now have to ask ourselves whether the risk posed by the now dominant Omicron variant really justifies the cost of testing and isolation.
This is a difficult conversation, as many on the left are fighting hard to see restrictions continue and for money to be poured into programmes which keep people away from work, damage our social cohesion, economy and way of life.
What we should be looking at is the real life data on the Omicron variant, which was first isolated in South Africa. Richard Friedland, chief executive of Netcare, South Africa’s biggest provider of private healthcare, has said
“The most important issue is that there was a clear decoupling between community spread, which has been very rapid, and the level of hospital admissions, we have not suspended elective surgeries, and there is no pressure on beds . We have had no capacity constraints at all in the fourth wave.”
Whilst many have tried to argue there are differences between the situation in South Africa and UK, the fact that the increase in cases here has not led to increased hospitalisation with serious disease follows the same pattern. The numbers coming out of London – which tends to be ahead of the rest of the UK – suggest we’ve already hit a peak in cases and hospitalisations. All the data suggests that infection rates, once they have peaked, will fall as fast as they increased, just as they have in South Africa.
Meanwhile, for the first time in a generation inflation is rearing its ugly head, and increases in the cost of living are having an real impact on household budgets. Whilst the Government cannot control world markets, Brexit does give us the freedom to drop VAT on fuel, electricity and gas. Alongside this, the Government should be looking at ditching the upcoming NICS increase, which I believe is the wrong tax at the wrong time.
Yes, these tax cuts will result in losses to the Exchequer initially, but that can be mitigated by a return to careful spending and economic growth. Let’s get some perspective, accept this level of testing is unnecessary, and instead rely of the wall of immunity provided by vaccines and previous infection. Let’s scrap isolation rules and install a sense of optimism in the general public to get back to work and resume pre-pandemic economic activity. The whole country will benefit from the resultant tax revenues.
All developed countries have increased their debt levels during the Covid pandemic – but by being first out of the blocks in returning to normal all of us, including the Treasury, will reap the reward from reduced costs and increased output.
I am therefore calling on the Prime Minister to get back to Conservative principles of low taxes, economic growth and getting value for money in government spending. Scrap mass testing, scrap ineffective and economically damaging Plan B restrictions, supercharge future tax revenues by allowing business to function, and let the people of this country keep more of their own money to help with pressing cost of living issues.
If the data remains as it is, restrictions should be dropped on January 26. To displace Omicron, any new variant will have to be even more transmissible and almost certainly less pathogenic. What are we going to do when this happens? Restrictions have proved largely ineffective against Omicron – they will be even less effective against a more infectious variant. After two years, it’s not just time to ‘learn to live with Covid’, it’s time to get our lives back.
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