If a week is a long time in politics, then four years is an eternity. Barring some exceptional circumstance wherein we face an election sooner, it is four years until the Great British electorate will see the inside of a polling station to choose their Westminster representatives. It is safe in this knowledge and with their 80 seat majority that the Conservative high command sit comfortably. Make no mistake, the coronavirus pandemic will not be forgotten about. The once in a lifetime onslaught of such an indiscriminate and tragic novel virus, and the lockdown in which it placed us all, will no doubt form the fabric of many stories we tell the generations yet to come. In the yarn shared between grandparent and grandchild, no doubt, the scope of tragedy will not be lost. But I fear the unscrupulous nature of political electioneering. I fear the human scope of the tragedy will be forgotten in four years’ time in favour of a heralded, ‘against all odds’ great economic recovery. I fear the countless gaffes will be forgotten too. Above all, I fear the Tories already know this.
In knowing this, the Tories have adopted a long-term electoral strategy, centred upon engineering a post-pandemic environment wherein the economy does not struggle nearly as bad as economists warned us it ought to have. Fuelled by Nando’s and Pizza Express vouchers, the Tories want things moving again. Understandably, and chomping at the bit following three months of exhaustive zoom quizzes and burnt home cooked Delia recipes, the public will not hesitate in taking Sunak’s arm off for these high-street incentives. But there remains a glaringly problematic dimension of the UK’s restriction-easing experience and that is, are we ready?
The UK experienced the highest death toll in Europe and the third highest in the world (after Trump’s U.S and more recently Bolsonaro’s Brazil) and at the time of writing the UK is experiencing 512 confirmed new daily cases. Five Hundred new daily cases coupled with a Sunak and Johnson sponsored encouragement to get back to work and back to businesses – albeit alongside an insistence upon the use of face masks, a uniquely welcome U-turn from Number 10. Despite this message, there remains a swell of scepticism surrounding the preparedness of the UK to handle what is essentially the final stage in lockdown-easing. This scepticism is borne out of the UK’s lack of a digital track and trace app – the successful development of which was considered by many other countries to be the crucial skeleton key for relaxing restrictions. Indeed, various epidemiologists and members of the SAGE committee have compounded and stressed the necessity of digital tracking and tracing capacity in the easing of the lockdown. The benefit of track and trace of course being that normality can resume, traders can trade, restaurants can restaurant all while pockets of Covid-19 could be efficiently quashed. Nevertheless, in the gaping absence of such capability, we move fourth.
Reopening the economy is of course essential, and broadly, Mr. Sunak’s support for business throughout the pandemic, and now the support for consumers is, on the surface, encouraging (the point shouldn’t be lost however, that it took Marcus Rashford to point out to the government that starving schoolchildren required government subsidisation, yet when it came to the survival of businesses, Downing Street proved well capable of figuring it out themselves, without the input of a Premier League footballer.) But the thought of the human cost and the familial grief of more pandemic-related tragedy, as such will be the case with premature relaxation in light of no digital track and trace, is deeply troubling. Likewise, on the other hand, a post-pandemic recession as hard-hitting as ’08 or worse, as some economists have suggested, would no doubt bring hardship and further tragedy to the households of many.
The calculations are stupendously difficult and I do not envy the shoes in which the individual stands who has to make them. But I do believe that each single human life is invaluable, and an overzealous fascination with bolstering the economy, particularly when underpinned with an eye to 2024, will significantly skew these calculations harrowingly in favour of percentage points and pounds. Moreover, and rather unfortunately come 2024, the Tories will not let subside any shred of economic triumph in the wake of this once-in-a-lifetime global struggle. The pandemic will not be forgotten, but the intensity of the grief of thousands of deaths which sits so viscerally with us all now, may recede as normality returns. Replaced only by a loud Tory acclaim to economic success, propelled by the chancellory and testament in the avoidance of a crippling recession -and it will probably be written on the side of a big red bus too.