Closing down and staying open

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By Russell Bruce

This is not the contradiction in terms it might seem. As borders close and events are cancelled it is vital that information, food and medicines can continue to flow as freely and safely as possible.

The internet is virus free in the sense that Covid19 can not be transmitted through the web. It is important to take information from sensible, credible and authoritative sources. True there is much false information, so as journalists we have to ensure we are providing accurate information and advice to our readers.

The EU is working to an EU wide strategy. The UK is still paying into the EU budget and should be part of a pan-Europe response during the transition period.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said in a video statement, “We need to keep goods flowing across Europe without obstacles. In this moment of national crisis it is of utmost importance to keep our internal market going.”

Johnson’s government seems to have been getting the message a plan is required but action and change are like a juggernaut caught in its own headlights. Maximising coordination with the EU is still a step too far for Brexit Johnson. Nicola Sturgeon took action by shutting down gatherings of over 500 people. We have moved well beyond that now. Sporting events took decisions to cancel, against their own financial interest, for the protection of fans and the wider population.

It is only days since Johnson’s health experts were insisting individuals would only have around 6 contacts at football matches. Any thinking person could run a 2 minute people movement model through their heads and understand these experts? did not understand how people at large events move in different directions and use various on site facilities. The only possible reason for this was preparation for the now dumped Herd Immunity strategy.

The horrific Johnsonian ‘Herd Immunity’ concept has been duly given the kiss of death, or so UK Health Minister Matt Hancock has claimed. People are not as stupid as Johnson’s government thinks. There was and is no science or actual data that immunity from reinfection could protect the survivors. At least there is some indication the government is to move towards following what other European countries are doing, but it is all somewhat speculative and suggestive of a total U-turn in search of an actual plan. Today brought some belated catching up with measures being taken in Europe and Scotland.

The economy and last week’s budget

Everything has changed. The economy, not just in the UK, but world-wide is gubbed. That means thinking the unthinkable about the operation of financial markets, monetary and fiscal policy. Israel today closed their stock market. There needs to be coordinated global action built on regional action plans and that means the closest possible European collaboration for the UK. Post Covid19, Brexit is meaningless.

Sterling continues to fall against the Euro, US Dollar and other major currencies. Stock Markets took another hit today with the FTSE down -9.83%, the Nasdaq down – 9.07% . Europe fared a bit better with the German DAX down -5.31% and Paris CAC down -5.75%. The Euro rose against the US dollar. Commodities all took a hit, including gold. Brent Crude broke $30 to $29.78.

The budget of just 5 days ago has been overtaken by events. Any assumptions about tax revenues are widely out of date. As are the sums that will have to be spent during and after the end of the crisis, whenever that will be.

Faced with possible infection from a virus that does not discriminate between classes or income levels the next few months require international collaboration at a level and speed that even the EU has not yet achieved but it is the most promising starting point for the UK.

Government

There is in the UK, as perhaps elsewhere, an argument for a national unity government. I do not see that as likely but the Johnson government is in a crisis of is own making and at the very least must work across party lines to maximise support for new, as yet unthought through measures.

The devolved administration should be given more powers and resources to deliver for their nations. Delivery takes place at ground level and that includes the role of council administrations. Devolved administrations have taken what additional measures they were able to. Northern Ireland with the Republic are working on an all Ireland strategy. In addition to limiting gatherings the Scottish Government has lifted planning controls that restrict supermarket deliveries to improve distribution planning and increase the speed of essential supplies.

Research, vaccine development, medical supplies and reusables

No country, however locked-down, is an island. Work towards a vaccine must be pursued at a global level and funded by governments as required. Trump trying to buy up German scientists for US only benefit is despicable. Leaders must not descend to panic buying. Research must be open and fully exchangeable to all countries. When available for mass vaccine manufacture, global pharmaceutical companies must work together, at least they will have a product and assured demand during the economic meltdown. How far away a vaccine is is subject to different calculations but only inter-nation open coordination will shorten the timescale.

There is also urgent demand for medical supplies and essential reusables. With the extent of shutdown foreseen the manufacturing base in every country must shift to increase the production of such products. It may not be as simple as this might sound but people are inventive and creative when solutions need to be found and become willing to share knowledge, equipment and thechnoligies. Sharing across borders and inter-company will make the necessary happen.

Pan-European action

Total shutdown is not what is happening when controlled movement of goods, food, medicines, chemicals etc is essential. Airlines are crying out for handouts to survive. In a controlled situation planes need to be stripped of their seats to enable supplies to move rapidly from production centre to other European markets, and indeed from China.

Basic calculation. The average European weighs 71 kilos, add the Jet 2 cabin and baggage total allowance of 32 kilos for circa 200 passengers and that comes to 20.6 metric tonnes, assuming the usual few seats left vacant and allowing for a normal crew. On top of this there is the considerable weight of food, drink and products for sale. Water is not needed to flush toilets when there are no passengers. Add the weight of the seats and those heavy rectangular metal containers at the back of the plane and considerably more that 20.6 metric tonnes is possible, even with load shifting controls.

Employment

Those of working age are moving to working from home with much reduced travel. This is being actively pursued by companies. Apple have closed all their stores outside China. Apple can afford this, other stores selling non essentials will find life more difficult. People whose jobs are temporarily unavailable must be compensated and paid to move to other essential roles like distribution and food production.

Levelling out the peak

There is some confusion over the levelling out of the peak strategy as adopted in Scotland. Scotland is pursuing maximum shutdown compared to the uncertain picture from south of the Border. The NHS will not be able to cope if we see a dramatic sudden peak, as would be the case without a significant shutdown strategy and more people suddenly becoming seriously ill. Although Scotland is better resourced than England no part of the UK has the resources that have been available in Italy.

10 years of conservative UK government cuts to public services to pay for tax cuts is coming home to roost.

The stronger shutdown action is, the sooner we get to infectivity rates slowing in advance of the eventual major fall. Nobody knows how long this will take. China and some other countries are now seeing new infectivity level falling sharply. The strategy is not about preventing mass early deaths for the same number of deaths at a later time. It is to enable everyone to get the best chance of survival if they are infected and their symptoms become more serious and require hospitalisation. Testing in the community is continuing. At the moment some areas are being sampled so that data on infectivity rates can be modelled. Those who have an underlying health issue and who experience symptoms will be tested by their GP.

The Edinburgh bypass at 5.30pm showed people are opting to limit travel with many working from home. People, organisations and businesses are taking voluntary measures to protect themselves, with the UK government playing catch-up.