The government and its advisers have fobbed off repeated queries about an exit strategy. There was not enough information about the progress of the pandemic; it was too early to say; they didn’t want to distract from the message of social distancing.
I don’t know what our exit strategy should be, but I know what a strategy looks like, and none of those answers is relevant. A strategy, in this context, is a review of information, priorities, options and possible choices. It’s not an action plan – that’s what you come up with after the approach has been agreed. And if there’s only one option, and the choice has been made, it’s not a strategy – it’s a policy. Claiming that this is no time to consider an exit strategy is basically announcing that the government hasn’t thought about what the priorities, options and choices might be.
I doubt that this is true. The government almost certainly has a strategy; it just doesn’t want to tell us what its priorities, options and choices are, in case we, the public, should happen to disagree. Their way is the only way. It’s a fortress mentality – the same approach that they have taken to social protection, to Brexit, and to recent measures to help business. And invariably it leads to worse decisions than there would be if the matter was opened to informed discussion.
One of the defining characteristics of a democracy, Joshua Cohen argues, is that it is ‘deliberative’: people are able to engage, to discuss and to disagree. For any strategy to work in the current crisis, the government has to bring people along with it. If they don’t consult about their options and choices, it puts compliance in jeopardy. Imposing a single, authoritative policy is not ‘leadership’; it’s arrogance.
Additional note, 8th April. I am feeling the same sense of irritation at statements that the government cannot ‘review’ its policy, as the Prime Minister promised. It is too early to end the lock-down, they say. ‘Review’ does not mean ‘bring to a close’; it means that one looks at a policy to see how it is working. And it’s pretty clear that while some parts of the policy are working very well, others aren’t.
The bits that are working:
- there has been excellent compliance from the bulk of the population, slowing the spread. We don’t need full compliance; we just need there to be enough.
- time has been bought for the NHS to cope – we have reasonable hopes that what happened in Italy will not happen here.
- food distribution – the supermarkets have done brilliantly.
The bits that aren’t:
- social care provision – the model that depends on multiple visits by peripatetic staff doesn’t work
- the protection of front line workers
- the protection of people’s incomes
- management of access to public spaces, such as parks – closing them is bad practice
- restrictions which have nothing to do with the spread of the disease – the ending of legal transactions, stopping people going to allotments, visits to second homes (the test is social distancing, not travel) and over-zealous policing. Whatever happened to ‘reasonable’ grounds for going out?
- policing of abuses. Where is the heavy equipment that was supposed to be used for major construction projects today? (I ask because I already know it’s not where it’s supposed to be.)