This is my fifth day of self-isolation. Distance gives you time to reflect and develop a different perspective away from the usual cut and thrust of politics.
One of the first things that strikes me is that there are some positives to note in the way in which we as a society are dealing with this crisis, compared to the recent past.
Gone is the disdain for experts. Our politics has become less tribal in tone. Though divided by Brexit only a few months ago, we have rediscovered our sense of community.
Rebuilding lost public trust in our key institutions – in Government, our parliaments, the media – seems to me pretty key if collective action over the new few weeks and months is going to be successful. Three things will be essential I think: openness, urgency and solidarity.
Evidence-based policy-making is even more important in a crisis than in more normal times. But for it to work effectively, it has to be open. Science in a context as complex and uncertain as this, is never exact, final or unequivocal and so decisions based upon it, are finely-balanced and subject to change. We saw an example of this over the weekend when a change in the assumptions on the expected level of hospitalisation, based on new data from Italy and elsewhere, became the catalyst for a radical shift in policy on social distancing. Openness – ‘showing your workings’ – is a foundational principle for science, enshrined for example in the practice of peer review. Many of the individual scientists involved in advising the Government have been exemplary in the lengths they have gone to engage publicly. It’s welcome that the UK Government has agreed to publish the modelling behind their COVID-19 strategy. That needs to happen as soon as possible.
Governments’ job in this crisis is to provide solutions, and it’s the scientists’ job to provide answers. The bridge between the two is asking the right questions, and in a democracy, we all have a role to play there. One of these questions is whether the use of more aggressive testing should remain part of the armoury against the disease. The UK Government and Welsh Government have departed fairly radically from advice by the WHO on testing and contact tracing. This approach has been very successful in places like Singapore, South Korea and the Italian town of Vo Euganeo. And even some of the Government’s own advisers have concluded that “highly effective contact tracing and case isolation is enough to control a new outbreak of COVID-19 within 3 months” – the words of the Centre for the Mathematical Modelling of Infectious Diseases COVID-19 Working Group.
It may well be that Government has decided that tracing at the level scientists have said needs to be effective (80%) is just not possible in a city the size of London. But could the answer be different, for example in Wales, with its smaller, more dispersed population? Ireland seems to think so, and are developing tests that give results in minutes not days. And isn’t testing more widely in any case beneficial in a wide range of other ways – giving us better data and helping maintain public support for social distancing measures? We urgently need to understand the thinking behind the decision to end community testing, and why it differs from the scientific advice elsewhere.
In a situation of uncertainty, we also need to accept that some decisions need to be made before we have all the information. In those ringing words of Mike Ryan, the Irish doctor leading the fight against Coronavirus at the WHO, “move fast – speed trumps perfection.” Urgency is vital. And from the failure to adequately test NHS workers or equip them with the personal protective equipment the WHO says they need, we seem to be behind the curve even as the exponential rise in cases surges ahead. Plans for extra ventilators and deploying retired staff sound more attuned to next winter’s second wave than next week’s caseload peak. We have a Cabinet war-room but I’m not personally convinced that our leadership has yet reached a war-time level of industrial-scale planning. It needs to and fast.
The final element for successfully surviving and defeating this virus is about us. All of us. We are all the first line of defence for everyone else. Following the medical advice as I am doing now helps protect us all. For many this will involve significant sacrifice, lost contact and lost income (not everyone is in the same fortunate position as me when sick or self-isolating). Continuing the social distancing measures, potentially in waves over many months, requires a high degree of public support for what Governments are asking people to do at a time when trust is at an all-time low. Rebuilding that trust means showing that, in this case, we really are all in it together. That the solidarity we can show by not hoarding goods or staying away from people when we are ill is part of a wider social web where we all look after each other.
This means the Government now has to bail out people with every bit as much vigour as we did with the banks in 2008. In practical terms I think that has to mean at least a wage guarantee for all affected workers, as many Scandinavian countries are already doing. Better still – as it would more easily cover the self-employed, freelancers and those in the gig economy and could be done without the need for legislation - would be an Emergency Basic Income, paid directly by the Bank of England, into people’s bank accounts – the ‘helicopter money’ idea long ago proposed by Milton Friedman and considered again during the last Financial Crisis. If there ever was a time for “quantitative easing for the people” then this surely is it.
One final reflection from me. As parliamentary chambers themselves go into lockdown, with more and more members self-isolating, then we may need to find a different way of doing politics. The most deadly virus of all in any crisis situation is groupthink. Dissenting opinions, if they are evidence-based and constructive, are a vital part of getting things right – in politics just as in science. But if parliamentary scrutiny becomes more circumscribed then we may have to find different ways of tapping into our collective intelligence. War-time crises may provide a lead. We may not be there yet, but if the crisis persists then involving Opposition Parties more closely in decision-making, both in Wales and at Westminster, may become something of a necessity. If we are going to win the war with this invisible enemy as President Macron has described it, we really are going to have find new ways of working apart together.