COVID-19: one year later

A year since the first lockdown, are we any wiser?

At the time of writing, the numbers of new infections and deaths related to COVID-19 in the UK are at their lowest levels since September 2020. Which, considering that the virus was running riot only a couple of months before, is seriously good place to be — but September was just the calm before the storm, before the consequences of re-opening hospitality and everything else caught up with us in the wake of Eat Out to Help Out. Are we once again at the precipice?

Where were we six months ago?

Looking back, in October we saw infections and hospital admissions skyrocket after it had effectively been open season for the virus to spread. The first lockdown was effective at reining the virus in, but it was lifted far too quickly and not enough was done during the time that the lockdown bought. The UK had three months of normal activity before entering a period where regions were given tiered restrictions, and fairly soon after the uselessness of that policy was exposed, the country entered another lockdown that would persist until the current calendar month.

What was learned from the first lockdown was that restricting people from mingling or unnecessarily travelling reduces the spread of the virus. Seems pretty self-evident but the data was there to support it, lockdowns are effective, but deleterious to a country's economy given the impact lockdowns have on businesses of all sizes in affected industries. What alarmed me was the immense pressure being put on the government by companies to lift lockdown restrictions earlier than April on their basis of preserving their solvency — as though they would still be able to operate profitably in a country populated by seriously ill or dead people. Companies can neither hope to sell services to seriously ill or dead people, nor can they expect to operate with seriously ill or dead employees, but clearly this basic notion was lost upon senior management at many companies.

The lockdown should probably have been extended until after the rest of the population vaccinated, considering that the most mobile subset of the population (people aged between 18 and 50, who are more likely to be either students, in employment, or both) have yet to receive any kind of vaccine doses. The elderly are of course the most likely to suffer the worst consequences of contracting COVID-19, and it was fair to prioritise their vaccinations, but whoever decided to draw the line there before re-opening the country could definitely have done with another cup of coffee.

And yet, here we are. The country has been out of lockdown for a week and the numbers don't seem to be showing any signs of rising yet — but I don't think anyone seriously expects the virus to stay its hand this time. If the virus doesn't resurge, it will almost certainly be thanks to hospitality operating under continued restrictions (only being allowed to operate outside beer gardens, for example).

Lots of people have claimed that hospitality had little to do with the spread of coronavirus in 2020, but I suspect most of these people stood to profit from hospitality being allowed to open 2020. I haven't looked at their data, primarily because I think it's frankly ludicrous to think that there are only non-trivial consequences when permitting people to gather in groups in a single location in which they will use shared toilet/sanitary facilities and consume alcohol — not a category of substances renowned for enhancing one's rational thought, ability to follow instructions, or adherance to basic hygiene principles.

Did the government act even somewhat correctly?

In a word, no.

Re-opening in as early as August 2020 was already a mistake. Slapping a government-subsidised 50% discount on food consumption in August was an even bigger mistake. I witnessed first-hand the utter chaos that arose during this period, and frankly I don't see how many high-footfall restaurants could have possibly adhered to their own standard operating policies and COVID protocols. The volume of people coming through the doors was simply too high.

The government essentially capitulated to the demands and complaints of business operators — not just hospitality, but high street vendors, leisure centres, the list goes on and on. The amount of money made by these businesses during July, August and September would not have made up for being closed for the rest of the year, so the government may as well have just given these businesses cash to stay solvent while maintaining the lockdown.

In a country where the service sector accounts for 79% of GDP, but within that hospitality accounts for 3% of GDP, no economic damage that could stem from the lockdowns could be truly irreparable. If people globally have demonstrated anything in the last six months, it's the ability to adapt quickly to an entirely new way of life under COVID-related restrictions. Where, ten years ago, the elderly would have delegated any technological complaint to a younger, more technologically adept member of their immediate family, today we're seeing unprecedented numbers of elderly people wielding smartphones and the NHS Track & Trace app like it was second nature. Contactless payments have also become the standard means of transacting for the vast majority of people, and while there are still intransigent individuals who refuse to follow recommendations from the government to use contactless payment and track & trace app technology, I would contend that this is largely down to a mixture of pride and fears about privacy — fears that could easily be allayed with a clearer explanation of how the app works (it doesn't track an individual, it takes a broad post code to inform the user of the risk level of their surrounding area and relies on bluetooth along with individual — but anonymous — declarations of symptoms in the app).

The second argument I would raise is that the cost to the UK economy will be incurred one way or the other — if the workforce is incapacitated by the pandemic, businesses will suffer the same impact (if not worse) than if they were to simply shut their doors and write off the remainder of the business year. If potential customers are incapacitated or otherwise afraid to make use of services in affected sectors for their own safety or frugality, losses will be incurred. businesses with poor cash reserves or that are highly leveraged will collapse, but in many cases this will have been inevitable anyway. The high street store was already dead before the pandemic, and if anything the rise of the coronavirus has merely given them a convenient excuse to close their doors, shake off the staff they no longer need, and slash operating costs to that of designing and manufacturing products, and of maintaining a website.

Even restaurants and pubs had merely to adapt to the circumstances of the lockdowns in order to stay afloat, with takeaway operations allowed to remain open. Some of their staff could have been repositioned as drivers while others could simply have been furloughed. Anyone in the hospitality game already knows that the margins on wet stock are pretty poor anyway until you get into cocktails and artisanal products, where margins on food are vastly superior. It's not easy to win in the food game of course, because having a winning menu, getting the right team in place to deliver that menu, and all the while adhering tightly to food safety regulations, is something that requires hard work and perseverance. The point, however, is that it can be done, and any business that expcts to remain profitable and solvent must be flexible, proactive and creative just to be competitive in the long term, let alone through times of global and domestic financial decline.

Given that smart, fast-moving and well-managed businesses, or businesses with plenty of cash, had plenty of options at their disposal to continue their existence, the reasons for breaking out of lockdown as early as July/August 2020 were primarily motivated by greed, stupidity and fear. Greed, for simply desiring more profit or at least some semblance of profit in the middle of a global pandemic; stupidity, for not actually understanding the severity of the pandemic; and fear, but not of the pandemic, rather of their companies' exposure becoming suddenly increased, should their financials have been in a precarious state already.

And yet, the government caved in 2020, and once again caved in 2021 to commit to a roadmap that included partial re-opening in April, the lockdown only having just brought the numbers down to manageable figures. The argument for this roadmap was vaccination, but by April, only the over-50s would have received their first vaccine dose, and practically no one but the over-80s would have received a second dose. The vaccination programme has been impressive and well-executed, but is now at an apparent standstil, with little clear discussion of when all of these people will receive their second doses or when the population under the age of 50 will receive their first doses.

Meanwhile, the virus is ravaging Europe and mutating at a rate that is either accelerating or was undetected/unreported in 2020. Why is Europe suffering another wave? Some point to slower vaccination — and the reaction to the statistically insignificant blood clotting issue associated with the AstraZeneca vaccine was certainly an indicator of some top-level idiocy in European administrations — but I don't think this is the only problem. The reality is that the next wave is most probably on the horizon for the UK as well. Without suspending or severely restricting travel to and from your nation, it doesn't matter what you do with your population, the virus will creep in. This is why Australia and New Zealand have enjoyed such great success in eliminating the virus. Most of the world's governments have made plenty of mistakes with their handling of the virus already; many administrations didn't take the virus seriously in the first place (the UK included) and now vaccination seems to be surprisingly low on the priority lists of many nations. They need to get the ball moving, and fast, or we'll all be stuck indoors again or simply rolling dice to see who gets to live.

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