I was asked once to examine a sick sheep. What I know about the diseases of sheep and other animals wouldn’t cover the head of a pin, but I manfully walked up to the sheep in question. It promptly got up and ran away. I was able at least to call back, “It’s alive”. It’s always nice to find oneself in a position to make definitive pronouncements, and it seems to me that many of the statements coming from government have at least as much authority as I did with the sheep.
The strategy of the UK government is to normalise the illness, as we have done with other killers such as influenza: allow for large numbers of healthy adults to be infected, reserve special defences for people who are particularly vulnerable, and accept that some people will die.
This position is out of step with the WHO advice, which is to contain the illness. It is not indefensible, but there are a few holes to fill in the policy.
Question 1: How will we know if the government’s strategy is working? If there is no routine testing, we cannot say much if anything about numbers – and so, we will find it difficult to say whether or not the policy is working.
Question 2: What is the cost of telling people not to seek help? The recommendation to self-isolate and soldier on through the course of the disease depends heavily on people contacting services in due course when problems become serious. That involves more than self-isolation: it depends on self-assessment. How many people will this kill?
Question 3: What happens to people who can’t self-isolate? The advice that is being given asks people to isolate themselves within their home, to keep a distance and not to make contact with others. That is feasible for about two-thirds of the UK population. The others don’t necessarily have a space they can isolate themselves in. Some have no home; some share their bedrooms with others. And we might point out that the UK government has issued various edicts requiring poorer people to share rooms. It is the policy of the UK government not to permit people on benefit to be supported if they have spare rooms, and to penalise them financially if they do.
Question 4: What happens to people on benefits? As things currently stand, there are severe penalties for non-compliance with benefit regulations, including the requirement to seek work, to attend meetings and appointments, and to be available. Benefit claimants have limited room for manoeuvre – there are limits on how many periods of sickness and how long a person can be excused.
Question 5. Where, in a society in lockdown, will people’s income come from? In the short term, the problems identified in questions 3 and 4 could be dealt with in part by two immediate measures: stop the bedroom tax, and stop all sanctions. There is a more severe underlying problem, however: our economy and our labour market do not deliver regular, stable incomes for many people. Under the old system of Unemployment Benefit, people reduced to short-term working or interruption of earnings would receive direct help, based not on a personalised means test but a simple question, about whether or not they had worked on that day (any day where someone had earned £2 was deemed to be a day at work). We no longer have that system. Successive governments have undermined the principle of social protection. We need it more than ever.