Cautious statements are now being made that the UK is over the peak infection rate and that the death toll from this appalling pandemic is decreasing. The question that we have all been asking quietly over the last month is now being asked louder and more frequently. “When will the lockdown end?” and more to the point “how”?
Few financial experts and economic gurus now believe that we will simply bounce back to business as usual with days or weeks of the lockdown ending. As the risk of disease recedes, attention is shifting to the massive task we face in rebuilding our businesses, jobs and the economy in total. It may be a well-worn cliché, but we really are entering new territory here. Very few of the people alive today in what we so often comfortable describe as the developed world have ever experienced what we are seeing now.
The announcement yesterday that the price of oil has become negative for the first time ever is the latest alarm call on the future of the world’s economies. The fall in demand caused by the global lockdown has flattened the mainstay of every major economy in the world and will cause huge damage in some. The EU has warned of a lasting loss of confidence in investing in the energy sector that is expected to extend well beyond the lockdown and the pandemic itself.
The UK government has not indicated any coherent strategy to lift the lockdown or to restimulate the economy when it is over. It has long been a failing of successive UK governments that the inclination to secrecy and the lack of transparency affects public confidence negatively. If we are really over peak infection it is essential that we are told well in advance of the lifting of the lockdown where we go from here.
There is no doubt that millions of people will be relieved when we are no longer restricted in our movements. There is no doubt that the retail therapy of being able to go out and buy a pair of shoes again will cheer us all up, even though it is likely to be a bit longer before we can mingle in the pub to talk about our lockdown experiences. What is becoming plain is that if we ever do return to business as usual it is not going to be soon. Even the relatively short period we have been largely confined to our homes has had a profound effect on our behaviour and our thinking.
So, what will we see as the lockdown ends? This writer has always been reluctant to use wartime analogies but an exception can be made perhaps now. The UK population is used to stories about World War Two thanks to incessant documentaries on TV and the media’s delight in reciting never surrender and keep calm and carry on messages. The words of a prime minister dead for 55 years are more familiar to many of us that those of one who left office only months ago.
World War Two in Europe ended 75 years ago next month and by remarkable coincidence it will be 75 years almost to the day when this lockdown is lifted. On the 8th May 1945 the war in Europe came to its end but as those who have studied history know its aftermath lasted many years longer than the fighting did. Austerity of a kind never experienced by most alive today was with us for another ten years. “Make do and mend,” a catch phrase of the war extended for a long time before we saw “spend, spend, spend” return to our society.
The middle of May will bring an end to this lockdown and we can go out shopping again for items other than those judged essential, but we must bear in mind that with the worry of Covid-19 gone, the worry of balancing the household income for very many people will be with us for a long time. Disposable incomes have been severely reduced for many, and even with shops reopened it will not be business as usual for quite some time.
It is easy to see why the government are cautious about announcing the end of lockdown. Everyone knows that this will be ‘damned if you do and damned if you don’t’. For everyone who thinks we need to end it soon there are those who say ‘just a bit longer’. The politicians know they cannot win and that is quite correct. The press and to some extent the public only want to know when they fail and will judge harshly on every account.
However, the end of the pandemic is in sight, it had to end and end it will. Just like World War Two, the casualties will diminish until one last poor soul is its final victim. Just like World War Two, we will live with its consequences for generations both in terms of economic decline and a much less confident view of our real command of healthcare in a future when epidemics are now our lived experience, rather than something we read about at university.
We have learned to live with lockdown, we now must learn to live with its legacy.