The debate on when, and how quickly, to exit the lockdown has been posed as a choice between health and wealth. But that is the wrong way of looking at it.
For a start, the longer the lockdown persists, the more negative the health impacts for some people. There has been an increase in domestic violence, domestic murder, depression and, presumably, suicide. Equally, the focus on Covid-19 has meant that other illnesses are not being treated – some people with strokes and heart attacks are not presenting quickly to hospital and dying as a result.
And there is a strong relationship between income and wellbeing. Poverty costs lives. Some families cannot afford to feed properly because of the Covid-19 emergency. Children in the poorest families are going hungry. Academic studies have already made clear that far from us all being in this together, the financial cost of the lockdown is bearing most heavily on the poorest members of society.
It is the poorest who are unable to work from home, who are less likely to have the skills to find other jobs, who do not have savings to fall back on. They are more likely to work in the gig economy, in insecure jobs that do not qualify for the furlough scheme.
So it is important to emerge from lockdown as quickly as possible, for reasons of health as well as wealth. But that is not the same as arguing that this is the right moment to ‘go back to normal’.
For a start, we will not be going back to normal. Personally, I don’t intend to fly for at least 18 months. I imagine many others won’t either. And even if I ever wanted to go on a cruise, I wouldn’t now do so for many, many years. They have shown themselves to be disease incubators.
So parts of the economy will only be able to emerge very slowly from this emergency. But also, it is too soon. Imagine large numbers of people returning to pubs and public transport. One ill person could transmit the coronavirus to large numbers of other people.
We would then have to return to lockdown. And potentially, that could be much more damaging. If we get a ‘high’ from being freed from our homes and then two weeks later we get a ‘low’ from going back, with a perhaps even stricter lockdown, my guess is that will delay the ultimate return to a strong economy. Wariness and distrust will be built into the community psyche – which could be severely damaging for a long time.
When we look around the world for examples of the best way of dealing with this crisis, New Zealand stands out. It took decisive action early and has been able to release the lockdown soonest. By contrast, the United States was slow in taking strong action, has the world’s highest death toll and is now risking permanent damage to both the population’s health and its economy by leaving the lockdown too soon.
The lesson surely is to leave the lockdown as soon as we can be confident it will not lead to a surge of new cases. That surge could be catastrophic in terms of deaths, but also in economic damage from the psychological impact and wariness in eventually going back to a functioning economy.
Official statistics suggest that while there are grounds for optimism that Northern Ireland’s death rate is falling, the decline is not yet sufficient to be confident that a release from lockdown would not generate a new spike in the disease.
However, Northern Ireland is clearly in a better position than is England – where the virus seems some way from being under control. That suggests the debate should now focus on whether Northern Ireland should adopt different policies than England and a faster speed in emerging from lockdown.
And also whether the lockdown here can be varied in ways that do not create serious risks – perhaps by allowing more freedom to exercise or shop, possibly subject to mask wearing (as is the case in some other countries).
We can probably all agree that this is a discussion that needs to take place.