Now Or Never
It’s like that scene in an action movie when the hero is suddenly out of ammo. She fought off, against improbable odds, everything that her implacable, shape-shifting, often invisible nemesis could throw at her, using improbable firepower she didn’t even realise she had. She pauses, gathers herself, rests her head back against the wall, closes her eyes. And that’s when she realises that they’re back. She reaches for her gun and fires… click click click.
Oh damn. She’s out of ammo.
Except our movie, our battle against the economic impact of the coronavirus, is not quite like this (terrible) script. We actually have the ammo! And not just the ammo: we have an arsenal of colossal weaponry available to us, right now.
The amazing thing about this armoury is that, even though we fired vast amounts of it during the first wave from March to June, it has only marginally depleted the firepower we have left – if at all! The UK alone strapped on fiscal flame-throwers to the tune of something like £350bn.
Normally, when governments borrow like late-night desperate gamblers, the price is very high.
Not this time. In fact, as the UK government borrowing escalated, the price it paid went down to record lows.
Let’s leave aside why that happened. Our movie hero doesn’t really have time to think through all the implications of the decisions she is about to make – not when it’s a clear choice between death or glory. Our governments are in a similar spot.
Let’s instead face the fact that, right now, the UK government can issue another £350bn of bonds, maybe more, to shore up the UK economy in whatever way it wants, to get us through what will probably be a winter of discontent. It can save most jobs. It can stop most companies from going into administration. It can stop theatres and cinemas from disappearing forever. It can stop high streets from crumbling.
What’s stopping us? Fear, maybe. Uncertainty, for sure. Not since World War Two have we had to deploy this scale of fiscal stimulus at this speed; I forgive our leaders for hesitation and doubt. They are human, flawed and brilliant like all of us, and almost certainly doing their very best.
But we are at a crossroads. I hoped, like many, that the virus would just go away. It hasn’t. That hope has gone. Once again hundreds of people are losing their lives every day to the virus or to illnesses exacerbated by contracting the virus. Hundreds of families are grieving every day; those families are certainly not blithely and brazenly talking about ignoring the social distancing rules for Christmas, as some are, but instead thinking about a first Christmas without a mother or father; a first Christmas without a grandparent, perhaps.
We can, with some extreme and unpleasant measures, stop many of those hundreds of deaths every day. Yes, I’m talking about a lockdown.
Another lockdown would, if taken in isolation, cause economic devastation. We have the financial firepower to stop that devastation.
Lockdown will, as we are starting to see from the consequences of the first one, have long-lasting social, mental health and welfare effects, especially on the young, those in the least secure jobs and the poorest in society.
The thing about those groups: the vast majority will still be alive after the pandemic is over – which means that we can resolve to do whatever it takes to help them recover, to restore their life and career trajectories to what they were or better, to correct the disadvantages they suffer.
The elderly and others with “pre-existing conditions” who will die in the absence of lockdowns and other measures? We can’t bring them back.
That’s why I have come to reject this argument: “we should swallow surplus deaths in the near term, because lockdown will, over decades, lead to many more surplus deaths through poorer life prospects in general”. Instead, I argue that we can recognise this calamitous effect on small businesses, on the young, on those with insecure jobs, and do something about it later. We can’t save the elderly later.
Believe me, I am no fan of lockdown and the behaviours that are unleashed by it. I chafe against every impingement on our personal liberty, every push against our hard-won privacy in the name of public health, every sign of the totalitarianism that emerges in jobsworth enforcers of petty rules everywhere in the world. As I have aged I have discovered a fierce attachment to individual freedom.
But, again, once the pandemic is over, I can fight to restore any freedoms that were restricted too readily or to overturn intrusive measures that were too tempting for governments to let go of. I can live to fight another day. The dead cannot do that.
So, back to my movie script. Our heroine (I’m thinking of a working name of “Rishi” but let’s see), discovers that the door she is leaning against opens up and reveals a scarcely credible stash of weapons. And, what’s more, she somehow knows how to use them all, despite never having had any training to prepare her for this kind of situation.
We urge her on. We know she can do this. Just grab the weapons and come charging out of the room, laying waste to her enemies. We are not really thinking about the months and years to follow, the long-lasting effects of this terrifying trauma.
But we know that she will find a way to heal and recover – in fact, I have spoken to some producers and we have sketched out a Netflix box set which looks at the years after the disaster at leisure: a story of redemption, recovery and healing, in which the scars of the trauma remain but Rishi and her society emerge ultimately stronger and more secure.