THE Institute for Public Policy Research published a report last year claiming that 130,000 people had died from austerity policies since 2012. The report was an exaggeration and distorted but the IPPR was making a fair point. More people die prematurely when there is less money spent on health-related activities.
The collapse in economic activity and recession now under way means that the shortage of funds associated with the last decade’s austerity measures will pale into insignificance compared with what’s coming. The impact on the health, longevity and wellbeing of the population will be immense. Yet modelling that lockdown impact is not even part of the discussion about national policy.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer should be talking about this at a press conference. At that point, a balance can be struck between coronavirus risks and the economic risks for the vast majority of people who will never become ill from the virus, but need to feed their families and have a job in order to do it. Those people are also at risk from other diseases and the termination of most NHS treatments because of the focus on the coronavirus.
Where is the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) in this crisis? Its job is independently to evaluate the government’s performance against its fiscal targets, and to evaluate the fiscal risks, which are clearly much higher than in the OBR’s post-budget briefing.
It should be shouting warnings from the rooftops based on the modelled impact of the lockdown on the GDP forecasts and the implications for government finances. Economic forecasts have greater certainty than forecasts for the pandemic of a novel virus that is likely to respond to a better treatment and testing regime quite soon.
If the government did its proper job of balancing these policy risks, it would be planning for a rapid return to normality within weeks because it will be clear what damage is being wrought from delay.
Strategic thinking and planning that takes account of the disease and the lockdown impact is required, not daily prognostications from disease-watchers lapped up by lobby journalists revelling in the misery of the bad news and ignoring the good.
It’s not the time for recriminations over NHS lack of preparedness but for rational thinking and planning. Much depends on vastly improved and systematic screening and testing – as has been emphasised time and again on these pages.
Jeremy Hunt has set out the scale of the testing programme that is required to contain and control the virus – information that is needed not just for sensible isolation and quarantine advice but also for proper demographic analysis and the evidence necessary for more informed and reliable modelling.
That rational thinking also requires an end to the lockdown – a rapid but staged return to normality with best practice guidance on social distancing and preventative measures so the spread of the virus is reduced but jobs are not permanently lost.
About 1,600 people die every day on average in the UK, some 100 to 150 of them from seasonal influenza, just to put into context the roughly 200 who are dying every day from, or with, coronavirus depending on how it is reported. This figure will rise of course but there are signs that the disease is beginning to come under control with the growth rate in cases and deaths reducing in the main countries affected.
Deaths from economic collapse are unquantifiable at this stage but would likely dwarf the coronavirus deaths based on recent projections.
These comparisons and perspectives are of no interest to political or health leaders. They have dread nightmares about only one thing; the corridors of hospitals being full of ill and dying people and those images being pasted across all media outlets.
At the height of his considerable imperial powers as Prime Minister, it was said by Alastair Campbell that Tony Blair feared nothing except the media. It’s the same for our current leaders. For them, acting rationally means minimum short-term media damage.
They prefer to hide behind worst-case scenarios on the future course of the disease delivered daily by experts. These are not experts in national policy-making yet are being allowed to dictate it. That is a disaster for our country.