Simon Wren-Lewis, Emeritus Professor of Economics and Fellow of Merton College, University of Oxford, raises good questions about Britain’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. Some of them seem germane to this country’s response.
Wren-Lewis posted his critique on his Mainly Macro blog under the heading Following the Science or a National Scandal.
British PM Boris Johnson and his cabinet – he notes – are where they are now because they championed a cause that pitted the elite and experts, who thought being part of the EU brought benefits to the UK, against the ‘people’ who thought otherwise.
It appears that with this pandemic, in contrast, these populists are taking note of experts.
“Appears” is the critical word.
They are following the science, we are repeatedly told.
But what science have they been following? The World Health Organisation (WHO) provided detailed information in February about what was happening in China, and their advice was test and socially isolate.
Western countries were all far too slow to follow that advice, but the UK stands out because it tried to follow a different policy.
The government no longer likes the name, but herd immunity was the government’s initial response to COVID-19. That is why it seemed content to allow large gatherings, even those involving fans from a Spanish city that was already in partial lock down, to go ahead.
So why did the UK go for herd immunity when the experts in the WHO and who advise other countries gave very different advice?
WHO advice in February? What exactly was the advice and what was our government doing then?
The answer to the second question is that it was braying about how the economy is in good nick to deal with a crisis, among other things.
5 FEBRUARY 2020
Today’s news of low unemployment, rising wages and record numbers of Maori in work shows the economy is in good shape and that the Government is delivering better outcomes across New Zealand.
Grant Robertson said today’s numbers add to data showing the economy is in good shape amid global headwinds like the US-China trade war, Brexit uncertainty and geopolitical tensions.
“The Treasury is currently assessing the potential impacts of the Coronavirus outbreak. But we know we’re in good shape to withstand global headwinds. Our Economic Plan and recent significant infrastructure investments will support the economy and position New Zealand for the future.”
11 FEBRUARY 2020
The Government’s books are in a strong position to withstand global headwinds, with the accounts in surplus and expenses close to forecast, Finance Minister Grant Robertson says.
The Treasury today released the Crown accounts for the six months to December.
The operating balance before gains and losses (OBEGAL) was above forecast by $0.5 billion resulting in a surplus of $400 million.
Net core Crown debt remains low, coming in slightly below forecast at 21% and expenses were $0.1 billion lower than forecast.
“At the halfway point of the year the books are in good shape. There is normally movement in these numbers across monthly accounts, but that will be exacerbated in the second half of the year by the impact of coronavirus,” Grant Robertson says.
“Agencies are currently assessing the potential economic impact of the coronavirus outbreak and while that work is not yet completed it is clear that there will be some impact on the New Zealand economy.
“The Government’s careful management of the accounts puts us in a good position to withstand those economic challenges as we have in the face of recent slowing global growth.
“New Zealand’s economy continues to outperform its peers with growth above the OECD average, the UK, Canada, Japan and Australia,” Grant Robertson says.
“The announcement of last month’s New Zealand Upgrade Programme brought forward a package of infrastructure projects which will provide further support for the economy.”
18 FEBRUARY 2020
New Zealanders are increasingly better off under this Government as wages rise and families have more disposable income, Finance Minister Grant Robertson says.
Stats NZ reported today that average household disposable incomes after housing costs rose 4.9% in 2019. This was the highest rise in four years and came as Stats NZ said average housing costs were unchanged over the year, while wages rose.
“This Government is helping Kiwis with the cost of living through a strong economy that is seeing wages rise and more New Zealanders in work,” Grant Robertson said.
27 FEBRUARY 2020
[Prepared remarks on coronavirus by Finance Minister Grant Robertson to the Auckland Chamber of Commerce and Massey University].
Beyond the public health response, we are taking a whole-of-government approach to managing the outbreak and planning for further scenarios.
A key part of this is our planning for the economic impacts of the virus.
As we do this, we know that this Government’s economic plan has been strengthening and growing the economy, even in the face of the global headwinds we have faced over the past two years, like the US-China trade war and Brexit uncertainty.
We go into this situation with the economy in good shape. We are in a strong position to stand up to the economic and health impacts of coronavirus.
New Zealand’s economy is in a strong position to respond to coronavirus. We are well prepared to respond to a range of scenarios that could play out.
Through this, we are assessing three scenarios:
- Scenario one predicts a temporary global demand shock where we experience a temporary but significant impact on the New Zealand economy across the first half of 2020, before growth rebounds in the second half as exports return to normal.
- The second scenario is based on a longer lasting shock to the domestic economy, as the global impact feeds through to the economy for a period of time, and where there are cases in New Zealand, and,
- The third scenario is planning for how to respond to a global downturn if the worst case plays out around the world, and we have a global pandemic.
We believe it is sensible and responsible to plan for these multiple scenarios.
It does not mean we are predicting them. But it means we can continue to act swiftly and decisively as the impacts of coronavirus on the global and domestic economies become clearer, so that we can support Kiwis and New Zealand businesses.
But as recently as 14 March the “major steps taken to protect New Zealanders from COVID-19” fell short of the lockdown later announced:
- Every person entering New Zealand from anywhere in the world will be required to self-isolate for 14 days, excluding the Pacific
- These restrictions will all be reviewed in 16 days’ time.
- Existing travel ban retained for China and Iran
- Cruise ships banned from coming to New Zealand, until at least 30 June 2020
- Strict new health measures at the border for people departing to the Pacific
- A range of measures to assist those in self-isolation to be announced next week
- Government will work closely with the aviation sector to encourage airlines to remain active in New Zealand, limit impacts on the tourism sector and exporters
- Directive on mass gatherings to be announced early next week
Wren-Lewis then explores the nature of the expert advice given to the British Cabinet.
What detailed discussions were going on in the group advising ministers (SAGE) we will not know until an inquiry is held, but it seems highly unlikely that they were unanimous in presenting “the science”. The UK’s chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, has said “If you think SAGE is a cosy consensus of agreeing, you’re very wrong indeed”. According to one report:
“Several of the scientists frantically argued that the UK must immediately introduce social distancing to halt the spread of the virus. Some pleaded with the government to change tack or face dire consequences. But others continued to believe that introducing social distancing now would be unsustainable for a long period and would lead to a more disastrous second wave of infection.”
In other words there was no unified science, but disagreements among experts advising the government. There also seems to have been a concern within the government about the economic costs. So the question to ask is why did the government follow some of the experts (a small minority internationally) and not others?
This raises the question of how much agreement has been reached among the experts advising the New Zealand government.
In Britain, the seriousness of the news out of China became clear in January [and here, too, it is fair to suppose].
Wren-Lewis references a report which shows the UK’s Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty, warned the cabinet in January that other countries might experience this pandemic
… but Boris Johnson’s instincts were to resist a life changing crackdown, and Dominic Cummings agreed.
It seems that so convinced were both politicians that nothing needed to be done that they failed to do what any good politician should do, and plan for contingencies.
How much differently – we wonder – was our government reacting at that time.
The time that was lost in those days before the “herd immunity” strategy was changed is the key to why so many things have gone so horribly wrong since. These range from minor, like Johnson continuing to shake hands, to critical failings like not ramping up testing capacity (the UK was among the first to develop a test, but is testing far fewer than other countries), not ordering more ventilators until dangerously late, a failure to deliver protective equipment to all doctors and nurses well before they were needed and the complete failure to quickly unroll a public information campaign.
Even after March 16 – says Wren-Lewis – Boris Johnson was following a suppression strategy in a half-hearted manner.
What he should have done, as soon as was possible, was to impose something close to the maximum degree of suppression immediately. Instead it came in a piecemeal fashion:
The Prime Minister kept saying “when the time was right” at his press conferences. Instead of trying to get the pandemic under control as soon as possible, it seemed he was trying to squash the curve by just enough to ensure hospitals were not overrun.
Wren-Lewis doubts this was the strategy any epidemiologist would advise but, rather, reflects the Prime Minister’s distaste for restricting people’s freedom.
The damage Johnson’s inaction caused and will continue to cause is measured in lives needlessly lost.
Doctors and nurses were asked to put their own lives at risk because of the impact of austerity (WHO standard protective equipment was not ordered in 2017 because it cost too much), and because the government bet everything on the success of herd immunity until March 16.
In this country, thousands of doctors and nurses from across the country in recent days were pressing the government for more effective personal protective equipment (PPE) in the fight against Covid-19.
Calls from health care workers included:
- Face masks to be made available and worn by all hospital staff.
- Every health worker caring for confirmed or probable Covid-19 patients should wear N95 masks, hazmat suits, goggles and full-face shields.
- Full PPE – including N95 masks, hazmat suits, goggles and full-face shields – should also be used when testing patients for Covid-19.
It comes after the Ministry of Health advised that gloves and face masks were only recommended to hospital workers who couldn’t ensure one-metre distance from people with potential Covid-19 symptoms.
Some doctors say they have “real concerns” with these guidelines calling the ministry’s response “woefully inadequate”.
A petition – signed by more than 14,00 New Zealanders – was calling on the Ministry of Health to follow overseas guidelines which included N95 masks, hazmat suits, googles and full face shields for every health worker caring for those with confirmed or probable Covid-19.
An inquiry into which experts have given what sort of advice to our government – and when the advice was given – would be instructive.