So, here we are into week four of a lockdown that threatens to turn the UK into a Third World economy. There is widespread agreement among those knowledgeable about public health that intensive testing and contact tracing are the least unsafe routes out of the lockdown. In its 18 April issue, The Economist reports that to carry this out effectively in the US, more than 260,000 people would need to be trained and hired to do a job that is not especially demanding – “anyone with a secondary-school education can be trained in a day”. It further reports an estimate that paying the first 100,000 hires paid for a year, after the costs of training, would cost US$3.6 billion – ‘a rounding error on the cost of shutting down the American economy’.
I’ve done a simple transposition of these numbers to the UK context. The UK’s population is about one-fifth that of the United States, so the need is for 52,000 contact tracers, with an initial tranche of 10,000 – a small fraction of the number of people with requisite qualifications who have been idled by the mandated economic shutdown. Assuming comparable wage costs, after training this first tranche would cost less than £600 million – again, a rounding error in the costs lockdown is now inflicting on the UK economy.
There is no indication whatsoever that the UK government is contemplating the basic measures that, on the best available evidence, would provide a safe route out of lockdown. Instead, we get reports that: ‘A Department of Health spokesman said the UK was “one of the most prepared countries in the world for pandemics”’ – meaning only that anyone with an official connection to central government is lying, which we already knew.
The lack of any semblance of preparation lends itself to one of three explanations:
1. The government is incompetent and has no idea of what it is doing – troubling, since constitutionally it is almost impossible to replace for four years.
2. The government is well aware of what it should be doing, but also aware that despite the sweeping powers it has granted itself, it lacks the administrative and logistics capacity in Whitehall and perhaps the basic intelligence at senior levels to organise tasks such as repurposing idled industrial capacity to produce protective equipment and setting up training programmes using existing educational institutions. A government run by normally intelligent grownups would have started on these tasks weeks ago, bringing in private sector expertise as needed.
3. The government’s objective is to create conditions under which current lockdown conditions will be extended for many months, using public health as a justification – meanwhile, distracting attention from all its earlier failures to take measures that would avoided the continuing crisis.
Take your choice – and if you are fortunate enough to have the choice, organise your own ‘exit strategy’ from what may become an unlivable jurisdiction if and when the lockdown ends.