Thursday 12 March 2020 6:01 am

The government should keep calm, focus on facts, and commit to a Covid-19 strategy

Alan Mendoza is executive director of the Henry Jackson Society.

If ever there were a case of Man proposes but God disposes, the Covid-19 outbreak would fit the bill.

A subject that was not even in the popular lexicon at the turn of the year has become our only topic du jour. 

If this continues for much longer, we may soon be dividing time into two new phases — Before Coronavirus and After Coronavirus — with the hitherto humble toilet roll and hand sanitiser acting as their new units of value.

But as the thin veneer of civilisation starts to crack in the shopping aisle frenzy, spare a thought for those charged with guiding the nation through a crisis entirely not of their making, but on which they most definitely will be judged. 

When Boris Johnson contemplated his first year in office following an election triumph, his mind was likely filled with thoughts on how to deliver goodies for the northern and Midlands voters who defected from Labour’s former “red wall”. There was also the small matter of executing the Brexit he had promised. 

Instead, his government’s first Budget has been hijacked by an all-nation (or, dare we even say it, One Nation) rather than regional approach to the anticipated After Coronavirus chaos. We shall all receive goodies, rather than just some of us. And as for Brexit, who even remembers what that is?

The same goes for other major Before Coronavirus issues like climate change, which has faded out of public significance, even as the unintentional effects of the global Covid-19 shutdown are acting to improve our polluted air. The prophet of doom herself, Greta Thunberg, has finally been out-gloomed by the imminence of the crisis at hand rather than the one in the bush.  

But for all the jesting, Covid-19 is a serious business, as has been evidenced by the reaction of global financial markets and the extraordinary measures undertaken by authorities around the world. The UK is no exception — as the emergency cut in interest rates to a historic low by the Bank of England shows — even if our political response has been markedly different to those elsewhere. 

That there are differences in how countries react should be of no surprise. Authoritarian states like China (which we should not forget is where this plague originated and was allowed to initially spread unhindered owing to neglect by the Chinese authorities) can impose the most draconian of measures without fear of political repercussions. 

In contrast, democratic political leaders now face being impaled on the horns of a terrible dilemma: how to mitigate the possible effects of a virulent virus that will likely wreak havoc in certain demographics, without collapsing their economies and societies by taking too drastic measures, too early on. 

Get it right, and you may end up like South Korea, which is Covid-19 ridden, but where a mass programme of screenings, virus hotspot cleansing and social distancing and tracking has seen a decline in new cases from their peak. 

Get it wrong, and you might become Italy, with coronavirus rampant and an entire country on enforced lockdown and quarantine.

Thus far, the British government has erred on the side of caution, wheeling out experts like the chief medical officer to provide cover for the pace of progress in its four-part strategy. 

But if it misjudges the moment to switch from the Containment phase to the Delay phase — as critics are already claiming — it will win no plaudits, not least among those whose loved ones suffer fatalities. 

At the same time, there is obvious political nervousness at the prospect of a prolonged recession caused by too heavy-handed a response. It took roughly a decade for the UK to recover from the 2008 financial crisis. Nobody wants us plunged back into that nightmare, though it would of course be preferable to mass casualties. 

And for those who think it is too early in an election cycle for an economic disaster to impact the reputation of a government, John Major’s 1992 administration was only in its infancy when Black Wednesday occurred. It never recovered. 

Nor can voters be expected to give governments a pass on global crises. Gordon Brown had a plausible claim for saying that his approach to the financial chaos of 2008 helped prevent a collapse becoming a rout. But that did him no good in the 2010 election. 

In essence therefore, the government may well be damned if it does, and damned if it doesn’t. 

But this prospect should be liberating. With the fate of its reputation out of its control, the government should throw itself into pursuing the course of action that it believes will be right — whatever that looks like — rather than necessarily prudent. 

Perhaps that is the current approach. Perhaps it is a beefed-up alternative. Either way, the British people will be able to decide in the fullness of time whether the fact that our government had the courage of its convictions will be worthy of respect in the After Coronavirus age.

Main image credit: Getty

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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