United Kingdom

Wake up Britain! If we don't rouse from lockdown torpor soon, we face an economic collapse

Even now, when the lockdown is beginning to ease, it is an eerie experience to walk down your local High Street.

Most shops are still shuttered. The restaurants are dark, the pubs abandoned. The dusty pavements stretch out in front of you, silent and empty, weeds poking through the cracks.

Sometimes I feel as if I’ve woken up in a post-apocalyptic science fiction film, with zombies poised to leap out at any moment. 

And in one sense, the word apocalyptic is right: with every passing day, it is becoming much harder to rebuild our economy from the ruins.

it is an eerie experience to walk down your local High Street. Most shops are still shuttered. The restaurants are dark, the pubs abandoned. The dusty pavements stretch out in front of you, silent and empty, weeds poking through the cracks. Pictured: Shoppers walk through Liscard in Wallasey, in the Metropolitan Borough of Wirral, Merseyside on Monday

Despite this bleak picture, any talk of relaxing the lockdown remains enormously controversial. Millions of children remain at home, kept there by anxious parents or because schools have not re-opened.

Equally, millions of adults are reluctant to return to work.

Yet, thanks to the definitive figures released by Public Health England (PHE) on Monday, we know that not everybody is equally at risk from this dreadful virus. 

We now know, for example, that death rates are twice as high among people of Bangladeshi heritage than among their white neighbours. 

We know that death rates are 56 per cent higher among the morbidly obese, that almost half of all victims had underlying heart conditions and that a quarter had dementia.

The latest Downing Street data showed that the UK death toll now stands at 39,728, an increase on yesterday of 359 

We also know that if you’re in your 60s, you are 27 times more likely to die than if you’re under 40, with death rates climbing steeply among people in their 70s and 80s.

Given these findings, I wonder why politicians are so reluctant to introduce more flexibility into the lockdown, especially as the death toll falls.

And indeed why are so many — employers and employees — still dithering over resuming work?

Of course we shouldn’t be complacent about a ‘second wave’ — although the scientific jury on that is still out. 

And we must do all we can to screen the vulnerable. But the Covid-19 virus is not going to disappear and so it is unlikely we can eliminate risk completely.

And it’s worth remembering that, according to that PHE data, seven out of ten people infected with coronavirus barely have any symptoms.

The number of excess deaths in England and Wales spiked dramatically during the peak of the coronavirus outbreak. Professor Carl Heneghan, an Oxford University epidemiologist, predicted that the number of people dying would fall to average levels again by July

Separate data published yesterday showed that Birmingham has recorded the most deaths of diagnosed coronavirus patients, with 1,082 victims

We now have all the information we need to throw off the dreamlike lassitude that seems to have descended on us in the past two months when much of the population has been living through what seemed like an endless sunny bank holiday, with the Government picking up the bill.

According to the Office for National Statistics, we are sleeping for 20 minutes longer and watching almost three hours of TV a day. 

Wherever you turn, you hear people talking of their new exercise regime or their perfect formula for sourdough bread.

But we are sleepwalking towards disaster.

Some weeks ago, I wrote on these pages about the threat of a new Great Depression of the 1930s, far worse than the first. 

At the time, I suggested that history showed that with enough energy, our economy might rebound more quickly than some people feared.

But I now worry that I was too optimistic. Inertia has taken hold. It would be lovely to pretend that when we head back to work, things will soon return to normal. But this is a dangerous fantasy.

The latest figures are terrifying, so bad that only a few months ago they would have seemed incredible. Here’s just one example.

Last month, British car manufacturing shrank by a mind-boggling 99.7 per cent. Just 197 cars rolled off the assembly lines, only 45 of them destined for British customers.

So in a single month, our car industry has lost a staggering £12.5 billion in revenue — the kind of damage from which it takes years to recover.

In normal times, this would mean catastrophic job losses. And, indeed, unemployment has rocketed, with the count up by 856,000 to 2.1 million in April, the largest increase since monthly records began in 1971.

But even this figure is a fiction. The reality has been disguised by Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s furlough scheme, which covers 11 million people.

The costs beggar belief. Even if employers agree to chip in from August, as the Government hopes, the total outlay will probably soar to more than £100 billion — more than our defence and transport budgets combined.

For obvious reasons, furlough has proved immensely popular. But it is simply a vast exercise in delaying the inevitable.

Already market analysts suggest that 30,000 pubs and restaurants may never reopen.

On the High Street, many big name retailers are in trouble and may never return — Debenhams and Cath Kidston, for example. Almost every business, from the largest companies to family-owned firms, is preparing to make job cuts. 

Devastated by the collapse of the travel industry, airlines are laying people off already. 

Last week, EasyJet followed British Airways (up to 12,000 jobs cut), by announcing up to 4,500 jobs could go. Ryanair has said thousands of roles may be cut, too.

EasyJet has announced it will resume flying to almost three-quarters of its route network by August. Onboard, all passengers and crew will be required to wear face masks

Where will it end? James Reed, head of the recruitment giant Reed, talks of a ‘tsunami of job losses’, with many firms shedding half their workforce.

What he calls the ‘day of reckoning’ will probably come in the early autumn, as firms contemplate the end of the furlough scheme.

Some experts think that unemployment could hit 20 per cent, higher than in the darkest days of the Great Depression.

So what should the Government be doing? Well, Boris Johnson should start by levelling with us about the scale of the challenge. 

And in the Churchillian spirit to which he aspires, he should rouse the nation from its lockdown lethargy — still protecting the vulnerable, but encouraging others to get down to business before the summer holidays.

We know from the PHE data that people in their late teens, 20s and early 30s are least at risk from the virus. They should be encouraged to go back to work with immediate effect.

A child has his temperature taken at Harris Primary Academy in south London as up to 2million pupils were due to return to class on Monday

A child has his hand sanitised with the help of a member of staff at a Croydon Primary School on Monday morning. While children skipped in the playground while watched by teachers in full PPE

Similarly, the Government should try to get all primary school children back to their lessons, since their risks of contracting the virus are so negligible. 

In France and Denmark, school reopening has made absolutely no difference to the infection figures. 

Social distancing regulations in shops, pubs and restaurants should also be relaxed to one metre, following many European countries. 

And the Government must rethink its mad plan to introduce a 14-day quarantine for international arrivals to the UK — certainly the killer blow for the beleaguered travel industry.

This must just be the start. To encourage enterprise, the Chancellor should cut VAT and slash stamp duty. 

And to show that Britain is open for business, he should offer tax breaks to new enterprises, invest in super-fast broadband and continue to fund major infrastructure projects such as HS2.

But of course there’s no point doing that if everybody is still at home, teaching their children French grammar or baking sourdough.

In the final analysis, our future depends not on a handful of ministers, but on us, the great majority of the British people, from schoolteachers and shopkeepers to car workers and business leaders.

To come through the economic blizzard, we will need to display the same spirit of self-sacrifice that so many people — especially in hospitals and care homes — have shown in fighting the pandemic. And those of us who are least at risk ought to show the way.

We need to roll up our sleeves, wash our hands and go back to work before it is too late. So wake up, Britain — and let’s get on with it.

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