Ifan Morgan Jones
Governments ultimately have three choices when it comes to responding to the coronavirus.
The first is to let the virus blow through and allow the health service to be completely overrun, with a much higher rate of death (estimated at around 510,000 lives in the UK).
The second is a legally enforceable lockdown that forces everyone to stay in their homes most of the day, under penalty of prosecution, as we currently see in France, Italy, Spain and elsewhere.
This may need to continue until a vaccine is available – which could take 18 months or more – otherwise once the lockdown is lifted the virus could bounce back quickly.
Such a lockdown until a vaccine appears would slow the spread of the virus to the point where fewer people die due to the inability of the health service to care for them. But it would come with a big economic cost as the economy slows almost to a standstill for over a year.
The third is to mitigate the spread of the virus, with some efforts to prevent its spread but no strict lockdown. In theory, the virus still overruns the health service and the death rate is still very high, but not to the same extent as doing nothing.
It may seem distasteful to discuss saving lives as a political choice, but it is, after all, a judgement every government has to make every year when deciding how much money to give the NHS.
And deciding how to balance likely infection rates against social and economic factors is ultimately a political decision, however, much politicians would like to hide behind the mantra that they’re ‘just following the advice of health experts’ or ‘being guided by the science’.
And it seems to me that the UK, like the USA, has so far decided to mitigate rather than suppress the virus – to clamp down less than some other countries, and risk possibly paying a higher price in terms of the number of deaths.
The UK is on the same trajectory as Italy but some 12 days behind in terms of the number of cases of coronavirus so far.
But Italy announced their own lockdown in the worst affected area 12 days ago, on 8 March, shutting down businesses and banning public gatherings.
Despite this, if we are to believe the UK Government they have no plans for such a lockdown – even a partial lockdown in the worst affected area which is London.
As the BBC’s well-briefed Laura Kuenssberg put it: “The government is not, as things stand, about to shift to a much more draconian approach that other countries have pursued.”
Instead, the UK government’s strategy is to mitigate – which amounts to closing schools and asking nicely that people work at home when possible and don’t visit bars, theatres and other social areas.
They have also so far held back from the kind of direct financial assistance that would make the closing business a viable choice for hundreds of thousands of workers.
Unsurprisingly, given that you can still roam freely without any legal consequences, and given that many face a choice between opening their businesses and going to work or poverty, this hasn’t worked.
There are no shortage of stories of busy bars and cafes, and caravan parks full of tourists in west Wales.
According to the latest YouGov polling, 41% of people are going about their lives as normal. And 9% said they wouldn’t self-isolate even if they or a member of their household had symptoms of coronavirus.
It’s pretty clear therefore that asking people to stay indoors just isn’t an effective form of mitigation. And as half the population realises the other half isn’t taking it seriously, they are less likely to sacrifice too.
Mitigation alone isn’t working, as Boris Johnson seemed to admit in yesterday’s press conference.
It is, of course, probably now too late to avoid a similar scenario to Italy. But even if the UK Government is able to stomach conditions in the UK to deteriorate to the point where the army needs to be called in to move the bodies, to stop things getting worse still they need to at least match Italy and implement legally enforceable lockdown now.
The horse may well have bolted but they can still catch up with it, lasso it and slow it down if they’re quick.
At the very least, it would be prudent to introduce more severe restrictions until we know what the size of the wave of cases that is about to hit the NHS is.
Hopefully, the government’s denial of a lockdown in London is just a ruse in order to avoid a mass evacuation of the city before the order is given. And that lockdown will also be applied to the rest of the country over the next few days.
But if the UK Government really don’t have any plans to tackle the coronavirus beyond the current ‘mitigation’, i.e. asking nicely, then things could, unfortunately, get very grim and very quickly.
And it could be grimmer in Wales than anywhere else, as we have fewer intensive care unit beds per head of the population, and a higher percentage of the population in the 60+ age bracket who are most at risk.
And unfortunately, despite controlling Wales’ NHS the Welsh Government do not have any extraordinary powers to take these matters into their own hands. They have no power to introduce a lockdown of Wales unilaterally.
Wales’ fate will be decided in London, and we will have to pray that the choice the UK Government has made doesn’t have too high a price.