I know the perils of ‘middle way’ politics – I’m not sure Boris Johnson has it right over lockdown

Vince Cable
·6-min read
<p>Boris Johnson during a briefing from Downing Street</p> (Geoff Pugh - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Boris Johnson during a briefing from Downing Street

(Geoff Pugh - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

The government’s “roadmap” has attracted relatively little criticism and quite a lot of praise. By prioritising school reopening on 8 March it met head-on the main concern about the damage of the lockdown: education and mental health.

It neither annoyed libertarians – who want instant release – too much, nor enraged puritans who would keep us locked down indefinitely until the virus has been finally eliminated. The libertarians have been assured that release is on the way and we shall be back to – almost – normal by 21 June. The puritans have been reassured by the caution and the caveats.

But, having spent a political lifetime cleaving to the middle way I know how difficult it is to find, stick to, and benefit from. A lot can still go wrong with the pandemic notwithstanding the remarkable success and efficiency of the vaccine rollout, so far. And sometimes the middle way consensus can be wrong.

Indeed, what I miss, right now, is a serious critique from those who think that Boris Johnson’s uncharacteristic enthusiasm for the middle way is too cautious. The libertarians have been seemingly cowed into retreat by the argument that opening up too soon, and then regressing into further lockdown measures, would be fatal for the prime minister’s political future. For those of us who don’t care much about his political future – beyond wishing him a speedy and happy retirement – this argument doesn’t weigh particularly heavily.

It is also a hazardous argument since it is failing to prepare the public for what may well be a rather erratic and uneven process. The notion that taking the national re-opening slowly will make it “irreversible” is another triumph of hope over experience. Countries as different as Australia and China which seemed to be free of the disease have had to revert, temporarily, to new restrictions. The same will probably happen here.

What those countries have done, and others like Japan, is to make their measures as geographically specific as possible so that everyone outside the risk zone can get on with their lives. It is baffling that having developed a tiered approach last year, reflecting the big geographical variations in infection and pressure on health services, the government now appears to have totally abandoned any local differentiation and discretion within the national “roadmap”.

It is even stranger that the devolved administration in Scotland seems able to distinguish one part of the country from another, but much bigger England is being treated as one uniform, centrally controlled, whole.

The reasoning appears to be that since the government can’t get the “test and trace” system to work, the only reliable way to monitor the progress of the war between vaccinations and infections is to look at aggregate data for hospitalisations and deaths.

In fact, the £22bn system now appears to run much better than during its chaotic early months when its “world beating” status become an expensive standing joke. Thanks to the greater use of local authority staff and expertise, there are no longer reports of tracers sitting idle for days. The most recent statistics show NHS Test and Trace reaching 87 per cent of those with a positive test and then reaching two contacts in each case. The system is also now concentrating on potentially dangerous clusters of the new, more potent mutations which should enable a geographically specific approach to be adopted.

Yet test and trace isn’t being effectively deployed to help people return to work and resume social contact as soon as possible. Though rapid asymptomatic testing seems to be widely available – with results coming back in 30 minutes – testing negative does not afford you any freedom even for a day.

Conversely, too many of those testing positive – or traced as having been in close contact with someone who was infected – are not self-isolating. The estimates range from 20 per cent to a potential majority who won’t self-isolate because of the economic consequences. The only remedy is a willingness by the Treasury to compensate properly those who should stay out of circulation. Its penny-wise stinginess is ensuring that the billions spent on “test and trace” is going to waste and that offices and hospitality firms are being forced to shut down longer than necessary.

What is also sadly lacking is any progress to reduce the reliance on legal sanctions rather than individual responsibility and common sense. Fortunately we seem to have progressed beyond last year’s idiocies: ramblers being followed by drones; taped off beaches; and lots of sneaking on neighbours taking too much exercise. But it would be useful to know how many of the 42,000 police fines that have been imposed relate to organising seriously anti-social, Covid-spreading events as opposed to petty breaches of the rules.

At the start of the pandemic there was a lot of interest in the experience of countries, like Sweden (and also Japan) which relied on self-disciplined social distancing rather than legally mandated behaviour. The Swedish model, under its Social Democrat government, became somewhat tarnished because of its questionable pursuit of “herd immunity” and a worse death rate than its Scandinavian neighbours.

However, despite retaining a more open society and economy, even with a resurgence in the autumn, per capita deaths are less than half the UK level and the economic damage has been slight (a 3 per cent fall in economic activity last year versus our 10 per cent decline). We should take a fresh look at lessons we can learn from the Swedes.

Part of the reason caution seems to have prevailed is the way that pandemic politics has evolved. The lunatic fringe has unfortunately discredited those asking legitimate questions. The sensible voices like Charles Walker, who warns of a mental health pandemic, are drowned out by the likes of Sir Desmond Swayne claiming that NHS statistics on hospital admissions are being “manipulated” upwards to scare us.

One consequence of this colonisation of lockdown scepticism by the political right (both here and in the United States) is that it has become an essential requirement of progressive politics to demand more caution and longer, bigger, wider lockdowns. Yet there is an obvious economic cost in lost jobs and wages. The answer given is that government must pay indefinitely: extended furlough, higher benefits and more support to compensate businesses for being forced to close their doors.

I fully subscribe to the view that this is not the time for curbs on spending. But I get a sense that, since his free-spending heroics last year, the chancellor – Rishi Sunak – has panicked over the budget and wants to stop signing cheques. There is no unambiguous commitment, as there was a year ago, for the government to pay for its caution over lifting lockdown.

The danger for Johnson and the country is that the Treasury will try to sustain lockdown on the cheap. Impatience over the pedestrian roadmap will then grow and we shall get a rising volume of anger directed at government foot-dragging.

The prime minister has been urged to suppress his instincts and stick to the cautious middle way to protect his political future, as much as to restrain the pandemic. But, this time, it may be that on both counts his instincts would have served him better.

Sir Vince Cable is the former leader of the Liberal Democrats and served as secretary of state for business, innovation and skills from 2010 to 2015

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