If we treat people as irresponsible and stupid there will be a reaction

Chris Johns: We need adult conversations about risks and an end to the idea there’s one correct Covid-19 path

Walkers on Dollymount beach practising social distancing. Photograph: Alan Betson

Walkers on Dollymount beach practising social distancing. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

As we figure out the economic consequences of Covid-19 we should always be aware of the difficulties of making such forecasts. There are the perils of forecasting in good times, of course, but also the additional pitfalls involved in crystal-ball gazing during a time of crisis.

A small example is to be found in the UK chancellor’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme. It neatly exemplifies, in a small but revealing way, a key difference between the UK’s response to the crisis and the attitudes adopted by officialdom in Ireland.

The UK wanted people to go out, most obviously to help the hospitality industry, but also to send important signals about what is considered safe. Or perhaps safe enough. It was not a sign of anyone in government considering a “zero Covid” policy for Britain.

When the scheme was announced it was widely described as unlikely to make much of a difference to anything – relatively few people would risk restaurants to avail of a maximum £10 (€11.20) discount.

The chancellor set aside £500 million for the likely cost of the scheme. All the signs are that Rishi Sunak got his sums roughly right and that the cynics were wrong.

Scheme

On average, every person in the UK has used the scheme once. Of course, that’s not literally true: some individuals will have used the scheme several times while others not at all. There have even been reports of some people having their starters, main course and desert in three different restaurants to avail of three discounts. I’ll label that one an urban myth until proven otherwise.

So far, 64 million discounts have been claimed at a total cost of £336 million. Not all restaurants have got their claims in and the data has yet to include the last week of August.

The chancellor is said to be resisting calls to extend the scheme, leading some restaurants to offer their own discounts. Socially-distanced queues outside high-street restaurants all over Britain stand as testaments to success.

Sunak has thrown a lifeline to Britain’s pubs and restaurants which could prove vital. It sent a powerful signal that with appropriate hygiene, distance and common sense, some normality could be restored to social life. People have responded.

This columnist paid a visit to London’s Borough Market restaurant and pub area on a recent Saturday night, an evening not covered by the Monday-to-Wednesday scheme, and the place was hopping.

It helped that the weather allowed most people to eat outside but it was clear that younger people, especially, while being careful, have stopped worrying unduly about coronavirus. I was chastened to realise that I was probably the oldest person in the vicinity.

Sunak’s scheme seems to have worked. More of that kind of thinking is needed

Behaviour is adapting. Coronavirus cases are rising across Europe in no small part because of that attitude of the young. While there are clear instances of irresponsible if not stupid behaviour, there appears to be a rational assessment of risk.

The Sardinian nightclub that is feared to have infected hundreds, if not thousands, of people is, we hope, not typical. It is, of course, a reminder that crowded, noisy, inadequately ventilated spaces are high risk. Why such places are allowed to open is beyond me.

Lifelines

If lifelines are not thrown to many businesses, especially tourism and hospitality, they will go under. Some already have. The long-term consequences of that are unlikely to be good.

New businesses will emerge, in time, once the crisis is over. But the gap between now and then could be so wide that lives are permanently blighted. That’s not just a comment about the rise of unemployment, serious though that is. The health consequences of unemployment are as severe as the economic ones.

One or two people have taken to calling the current phase of the health crisis a “casedemic” rather than a pandemic. That’s to contrast the current data with the numbers back in March and April. Back then, lots of people, too many, got very sick.

More recent numbers say there is far less serious illness around, notwithstanding the rise in cases. Medics and other scientists dismiss this new description as premature and risks a resurgence of hospital admissions and death. That’s both reasonable and understandable. But the possibility that something has changed also needs to be considered.

If we treat people as irresponsible and stupid there will be a reaction. If we inform them of the risks and consider the possibility that our approach to coronavirus isn’t the only one, most of us will think that to be sensible.

The British Medical Journal this week published a grid of activities marked for their low, medium or high risk potential. It illustrated perfectly that points about outdoors versus indoors, the importance of being near adequate ventilation and nowhere near people who are singing, shouting or talking loudly.

It’s a grid that should accompany every health press conference. We’ve known about these risks since the start of the pandemic; they should not just be found buried in medical journals.

Sunak’s scheme seems to have worked. More of that kind of thinking is needed. More generally, we need adult conversations about risks and an end to the notion that there is only one uniquely correct path. The pandemic has elicited, in some quarters, the inner traffic warden present in all of us.

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