The Grand Delusion: Bail-out billions shield us from the reality – our economy is in tatters. Boris MUST stop us sinking into a new depression, argues DR JOHN LEE
By DR JOHN LEE FOR THE DAILY MAIL
PUBLISHED: 22:00, 8 May 2020 | UPDATED: 00:45, 9 May 2020
When Boris Johnson addresses the nation tomorrow evening to reveal details of the Government’s ‘road map’ out of the coronavirus lockdown, it will be one of the most important speeches any British Prime Minister has ever made.
The survival of our economy, the very future of our society and the hopes of generations to come will depend upon his words. With this in mind, it is clear what Mr Johnson should say.
After thanking the British people for their stoicism and fortitude in observing lockdown so resolutely, he must declare that it’s now time for Britain to get back to work, to jump-start the economy after its hibernation and to begin a rapid return to normality.
The Prime Minister should go on to say that offices, factories, shops — all workplaces, in fact — will open, as long as reasonable safety measures are observed. These might include social distancing where possible, strict hygiene measures and an understanding from employees that if they develop symptoms related to Covid-19, then they must self-isolate at home.
He should then tell Britain that schools and universities will follow, along with cinemas, gyms and yes, restaurants, cafes and pubs. Public transport will resume normal timetables. Of course, the Prime Minister should acknowledge that this doesn’t come without risks and challenges.
That’s why he will advise those whom the statistics show to be most vulnerable to Covid-19 — the over 65s, the obese, or people with underlying health conditions — to assume responsibility for their own health by ‘sheltering’ themselves if they wish, including those living in multi-generational homes.
Such a sensible end to the draconian nationwide lockdown can’t come soon enough. It might — just might — prevent our economy from being fatally crippled and it would protect those who need it.
Yet I doubt very much this is what we will hear Boris Johnson say on Sunday evening. He will not have the courage to take such a necessary step. Instead, he will continue to encourage millions in ‘The Great Delusion’, that we can continue as we are and somehow it will be all right in the end.
Well, it won’t be and the nation needs to wake up to it. Many of the 6.3 million people currently on furlough, and cushioned from the harsh reality of life post-Covid, do not seem to realise that when furlough ends there may well be no jobs to return to.
Others who have accepted temporary pay cuts may discover there is nothing temporary about it. For all the excitement this week about the beginning of the end of lockdown, the signs are that the PM is reluctant to embrace real freedom.
In its place we have the derisory concessions of being able to have picnics again, sunbathe if we want, indulge in an extra exercise session and socialize in a ‘bubble’ of family and friends.
At a time when we most need boldness, there will only be the most carefully calibrated, glacially slow lifting of the oppressive restrictions. Much of the fabric of society will remain sealed off and the economy will remain in the artificially induced coma from which it may never awaken.
No doubt this caution will be presented by ministers as a safety-first approach. But really it is nothing of the sort. Far from being the sensible choice, it will be reckless and irrational both economically and for public health.
As a former professor of pathology, my expertise is in disease and its impact on the body and my long research career has revolved around the critical assessment of data.
When report of this mysterious new ‘pneumonia’ in China first emerged in early January, I followed it closely. From what I have learned as data has become available, I believe lockdown could be relaxed immediately without serious risk to most of the working population whose chances of dying from Covid-19 are minuscule.
According to the latest figures, less than one per cent of coronavirus deaths in English hospitals have been among people under the age of 40. The risk of opening schools is even smaller.
Just 11 people under the age of 20 have succumbed to Covid-19. Each of those cases is a personal tragedy and I do not seek to diminish them. But I would argue that the death toll hardly justifies the economic havoc being caused.
Yesterday, former Chancellor Sajid Javid became the most senior Tory yet to call for rapid damage limitation on the economy when he spoke in favour of different rules for different age groups, to get younger adults back working.
When it comes to opening up business ‘you want to go as far and as quick as you can’, he said. I could not agree more. The truth is that the official response to this crisis has, from the start, reeked of panic, fuelled by dubious science.
There was never sufficient hard evidence to put most of the population under effective house arrest. Indeed, Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College, the epidemiologist whose work heavily influenced Government policy, has a dismal record as a forecaster, with a penchant for the apocalyptic, as the Mail has reported in detail.
This week, it was his trysts with his married lover making headlines in the course of which he ignored his own advice to the rest of us on social distancing. But worse than his hypocrisy has been his catalogue of scaremongering.
In 2002, for instance, he warned that BSE or so-called ‘Mad Cow Disease’, could cause up to 150,000 deaths in Britain. The number was less than 200. This year, it was of course Imperial’s doom-laden modelling that estimated 250,000 or more Covid-19 deaths unless a drastic lockdown were implemented that persuaded Boris Johnson to implement a blanket lockdown from March 23.
But we must remember that, from the start, there was never any claim that this could eradicate the virus. The prime reason given for the lockdown was to protect the NHS, which ministers feared would be overwhelmed by Covid-19 cases.
Well it certainly worked in that respect. With widescale re-organization of hospitals to create more intensive care beds, redeployment of staff to the coronavirus ‘frontline’ and the suspension of a vast range of NHS services that millions rely on for their well-being — and in some cases their lives — the NHS was busy but coped.
ICU units are now running at only 40 per cent of capacity. As for the network of temporary Nightingale hospitals, the 4,000 bed venue in London’s Docklands has been ‘mothballed’ after reportedly treating fewer than 100 patients. Others may never be used.
Added to this, there’s the possibility that the lockdown has actually made the virus more deadly. That may seem counterintuitive, but all viruses mutate, often into less harmful strains which don’t kill their hosts and which therefore allow the virus to spread further.
But if the lockdown is actually preventing Covid-19 from circulating, it might be reducing the spread of less virulent versions among the population — which would create a degree of herd immunity — while also concentrating the most virulent strains on vulnerable people in hospital and care homes.
If true, the current measures could actually be causing more harm to our health than good. What cannot be disputed is that the ongoing policy is inflicting severe economic harm.
Just yesterday the Bank of England warned that if the lockdown is extended until June the economy could shrink by 14 per cent this year — the sharpest recession on record.
That terrifying reality has not yet sunk in because, as I have said, a large swathe of the population is anaesthetized to it by the Government’s fiscal package to offset the pain of lockdown.
But, as Chancellor Rishi Sunak has said, with more than one-in-five adults now furloughed on 80 per cent of their wages, this will fast become ‘unsustainable’. For millions it is only delaying the pain.
The Financial Times predicts that a fifth of the working-age population could be jobless, a prognosis that is all too believable given the scale of damage in sectors such as aviation, hospitality, entertainment and tourism.
Of course, defenders of the lockdown insist that health should come before wealth. But that is a false distinction. The economy is people’s lives. It is not some optional adjunct, but the very force that makes our society function.
If permanent depression replaces growth, the human costs would be immense. Amid soaring unemployment and homelessness, the quality of people’s mental and physical health would plummet.
Already we are seeing the number of non-Covid excess deaths in Britain rising and is it any wonder when vital operations are postponed, treatments halted, GP consultations missed?
As a former NHS consultant working with cancer patients, I’ve been shocked at the neglect of some sufferers as the NHS focuses almost exclusively on Covid-19. Yet for all the current shrill rhetoric, this is nothing like a medieval plague, such as the Black Death, which wiped out one-in-three people in Europe.
Even in the case of older people, the danger should not be exaggerated. Using NHS data, I calculate that the chances of anyone over 65 contracting Covid-19 and dying from it are less than one-in-200.
Much less if you are healthy. It is the over-80s, those with the lowest life expectancy, who are by far the most likely to be Covid-19 victims. Yet, in a bizarre inversion of logic, that pattern has persuaded the Government — which insists it is following the science — to paralyse the entire country.
The brutal truth is that we cannot wish away death, no matter how sorrowful it is. Our mortality is central to the human condition, no matter how far medicine and prosperity advance.
Every day, about 1,700 people die in Britain. Only five years ago, in the winter of 2014/15, more than 28,000 people died from seasonal flu, not far off the current coronavirus death toll of just over 30,000.
And more than 80,000 died in Britain during the Hong Kong flu epidemic of 1968-69 and one million worldwide. But neither this country nor the rest of the world shut down then.
For readers who may think I am being callous about the fate of loved ones, I will share with you the fact that I lost my own beloved wife of 30 years recently. She suffered a sudden heart attack on holiday and, although I administered CPR, she did not recover.
After three weeks in ICU on a ventilator she died. She was only 57, in apparent good health and we’d been looking forward to many more happy years together. So believe me when I say I know what grief and trauma is.
But it does not change the facts of life. Indeed, despite my own draining experience of death, I believe that the reaction to coronavirus has verged on the hysterical. It has been driven partly by ignorance because so little was known about the virus.
We saw terrifying footage from hospitals, first in the city of Wuhan and then in Italy, Spain and New York, of doctors and nurses dealing with cases at the most serious end of the spectrum.
This helped to create a distorted picture of the virus, resulting in fears that the disease was far more deadly than it is. At first, experts claimed the Covid-19 fatality rate was 3.4% of infections, a disturbingly high figure, though the latest data, based on a far bigger number of cases, now suggests that the rate could be as low as 0.1%.
But the early fright set the tone of a Biblical plague descending on the world, a dark image that was exacerbated by some scientific modellers eager to catastrophize the crisis.
Ever since, experts have been fumbling in the dark, their skills blunted by lack of data. When the outbreak first started, for example, there was a clamour for ventilators in intensive care units to help get oxygen into patients’ lungs.
But oxygen can be a toxic gas which, combined with inflammation in a patient, can actually cause damage to the lungs in high quantities — meaning the early, excessive use of ventilators may have been disastrously counter-productive, as the Mail was among the first to report.
It is the same story when it comes to the ‘stay home’ mantra when being outdoors may be safer than in buildings which can be breeding grounds for the virus. There are even doubts about the value of social distancing.
Direct evidence to support the two-metre rule is weak, and based almost entirely on modelling rather than real life. In the cause of public safety, ministers and ‘experts’ have allowed coronavirus to warp priorities, wrecking economies, destroying livelihoods and undermining health.
Now we know so much more about the virus, we need to restore common sense and a public health response that truly has the health of the nation at its heart and looks after everyone. What better way is there to do that than by lifting the blanket lockdown now?
Over to you, Boris.
Dr John Lee is a former Professor of Pathology at Hull York Medical School and a recently retired NHS consultant.