ANYONE can get it and anyone can pass it on. So the government advertising reminds us as it exhorts us all to stay at home to protect the NHS and save lives. But staying at home until the virus is ‘beaten’ is clearly not an option; the devastating economic impact of putting life on hold for just three weeks makes that clear.
With no imminent prospect of a vaccine, a cure or even widespread testing, we cannot wait for the virus to retreat before we resume some semblance of normal life.
Yet ministers have already let it be known that current restrictions will not be lifted any time soon. Furthermore, the nation seems to have been so comprehensively frightened by the virus that the government may struggle to kick-start the economy back to life even when the time is judged right to do so. The longer this goes on, the harder it will be to pick up where we left off.
It is imperative, therefore, that the government begins to loosen current restrictions, but also that it finds a way to do so that can gain the confidence of the nation. Instead of blanket restrictions on economic and social activity, ministers and their advisers should be releasing from their homes, and back into work and education, those at low risk of complications from coronavirus. In other words, those under retirement age with no underlying health conditions, provided they do not share their homes with anyone in the older or vulnerable categories.
Given that multi-generational households are the exception rather than the norm in this country, a policy which continues to isolate the people most at risk is perfectly feasible, given the will to pursue it.
There are powerful social and economic arguments to underpin such a policy. First and most obviously, it is the young and those of working age who will both literally and figuratively pay the price for the lockdown through losing their education, their jobs, their businesses and their savings.
Secondly, it is becoming apparent that it is not the older or baby-boomer generation who are finding confinement stressful, but the young. Surveys about the emotional impact of lockdown show that younger people, and especially mothers of young families, are suffering the most stress from the current restrictions. This should not really surprise us. For the active elderly and retired, the day-to-day adjustments required to comply with the lockdown are less onerous. Missing the company of grandchildren is tough, but not as tough as being stuck in a small flat with fractious children who can neither go to school nor play with their friends.
Although we might wish it were otherwise, many older people are accustomed to living alone and being self-reliant. In fact the outpouring of enthusiasm from younger people during this crisis to run errands and check on the welfare of their older neighbours has proved a pleasant surprise for some, and certainly a consolation for many.
It is highly unlikely that a selective release from lockdown will lead to any complaints from the over-70s, most of whom will be hugely relieved that the nation is starting to get back to work and to school.
Let’s get on with it. The government told us that this lockdown was necessary to let the woefully under-prepared NHS increase capacity; it has ensured that beds are now available, so the unwinding should start. Three more weeks with the economy in deep freeze will do more harm than good.