Has Michael Gove Got It Right On The Health/Wealth Toll Of Coronavirus?

Ministers wary of echoing Trump on 'the cure' being worse than the disease.

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The economy, stupid?

Michael Gove had a suitably sombre tone as he announced the latest awful death toll of the coronavirus in the UK. At the daily No.10 briefing, the Cabinet Office minister said that the number had increased by 381 in 24 hours to 1,789. “Every death is the loss of a loved one,” he said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with those who are grieving.”

The numbers were “deeply shocking, disturbing, moving”, Gove added. We later learned that among the deaths was a 13-year-old boy from London, the UK’s youngest victim of Covid-19 had reportedly no underlying health conditions.

Gove’s words were a reminder that behind these grim daily statistics and charts lies a world of pain and suffering, shattered families that deserve more than to be numbers on a spreadsheet. In a world of almost routine updates and news alerts, his taking even a brief moment to reflect the human cost was a vital sensibility check.

Given the rapid rise in deaths, it was therefore somewhat surprising to hear NHS England’s medical director Stephen Powis then proceed to talk about “green shoots” of recovery as he walked that nation through a graph of new cases showing “bit of a plateau”. Powis repeated the phrase ‘green shoots’ a few times, even though he then said it was “really important not to read too much” into statistics, “because it is really early days”.

As a medical professional, Powis can perhaps be forgiven for seeking cautious optimism amid the gloom, or for not quite grasping the history of the phrase he used. But it does have a history, as Norman Lamont famously used it in the depths of the 1991 recession to claim things were turning around, just as many were still losing their jobs.

In fact, it was a young Jonathan Dimbleby who ripped the Tory chancellor to shreds on the BBC at the time. His question is worth quoting in full: “Throughout 1991 you foresaw green shoots. In your Autumn Statement, a year ago, you talked about Britain clearly emerging from recession. In the Budget of last Spring you said we’re emerging from recession. In the [1992] Election, the Prime Minister said “Vote Tory on Thursday - recovery on Friday”. You were wrong, wrong, wrong and wrong again. And you expect people to have confidence in you?”

As it happens, that same year Bill Clinton’s adviser James Carville posted on his campaign office wall in Little Rock, Arkansas, this now famous memo for victory. And as well as the line “Economy, stupid” there was a lesser-known edict: “Don’t forget health care.” Clinton tried and failed, Obama got part way and now Donald Trump’s whole presidency could rest on whether the voters think he forgot about health care.

With the US death toll from Covid-19 passing the tragic milestone of 3,170, surpassing the 2,977 victims of 9/11, there is also a huge economic downturn set to accompany the disease. Unemployment shot up by 3.3 million and yesterday one federal reserve estimate said there could be 47million laid off in total.

Still, economists are hoping that the shock will be short-lived, as long as the ‘lockdown’ doesn’t last too long. And worries about the economy over here in the UK were underlined by cabinet minister Grant Shapps when he pointed out that the task for the government was to avoid a crash “that would do more harm than the virus itself”.

No.10 was more politic, stressing that all its decisions on the lockdown were guided by medical advice, not economic considerations. But Gove was also notably keen to stress just why building sites and call centres should not be closed. He said those “going to work in construction and in manufacturing” were “contributing to making sure that the broader health and well being of the nation is maintained”. If workplaces can be made safe, there is merit in avoiding losses of jobs and income that would otherwise follow.

Yet it’s those death figures that really do weigh most heavily on ministers’ minds. And no one in government is rallying behind Toby Young (a close contact and admirer of Gove) and his call for the lockdown to be lifted by Easter and the schools to be opened soon after. Young’s suggestion - that Rishi Sunak’s bailouts are too expensive because they “extend the lives of a few hundred thousand mostly elderly people with underlying health problems by one or two years” - is seen in Whitehall as both morally callous and economically illiterate.

The fight against coronavirus is indeed a war. And like any war, the trickiest thing is working out just what the exit strategy should be. There are lots of issues of how and when to right the public finances, how and when to end the lockdown. But after the ‘herd immunity’ row, this government is now acutely aware that saving lives comes first. As one insider put it to me today, anyone who has seen this virus up close will never agree that its ‘cure’ can be worse than the disease.

And although Trump too has talked glibly about getting things back to normal “by Easter”, he is facing one statistic that even he may find impossible to ignore: in a few days, the number of Americans killed by coronavirus will exceed those killed in Iraq. Indeed, the total who may perish could exceed 100,000, his own advisers have estimated. You’d have to hope that in election year, that would be enough to force him to put health first.

Quote Of The Day

“Now is absolutely not the time for people to imagine that there can be any relaxation or slackening...People’s sacrifices are worth it, they are making a difference, but we must not let up.”

Michael Gove

Tuesday Cheat Sheet

The UK saw its biggest daily increase in the number of people who have died with coronavirus. Some 381 deaths were reported yesterday.

Michael Gove announced that the “first of thousands” of newly manufactured ventilators would “roll off the production line” this weekend and be distributed to the NHS frontline next week.

Boris Johnson chaired the first ever digital-only Cabinet meeting for ministers, with just Cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill present in the Cabinet room itself. Check out this pic for an insight into ministers’ self-descriptions, their use of Zoom, their bookshelves and their Union Jack flags (Liz Truss wins the prize).

No.10 said it expected the PM to end his self-isolation this Friday. Health secretary Matt Hancock told BBC Radio Suffolk: “I’m on the mend”.

The Home Office announced that NHS doctors, nurses and paramedics with UK work visas due to expire before 1 October will have them automatically extended for a year so they can “focus on fighting coronavirus”.

Postal workers have urged the Royal Mail to suspend junk mail and replace its daily deliveries with a three-times-a-week service in a bid to protect staff from the impact of coronavirus.‌

Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party drafted a new law to turn the upcoming presidential election into a postal-only vote.

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