COVID-19 Retrospective – Adapting to Cultural Change

Howard Wheeldon, an independent specialist analyst and well-respected commentator on macro-economic and geo-political affairs, examines the potential aftermath of COVID-19. How well prepared was the UK – and was the reaction from Government appropriate?

This blog was published in The Lunar Society Newsletter, June 2020

Leaving aside vexing questions that remain to be answered of how seemingly ill prepared the UK was to handle Coronavirus – one that spread its tentacles across the globe with alarming speed – it is with some relief that we are now able to suggest being on top of this first wave of the COVID-19 virus.

Nobody really knows but, on that basis alone, we need to accept the probability of a second wave occurring at some point later this year or next – and be prepared. In the meantime, we can expect a few spikes from the first wave here and there as – and despite the pain and hurt of those impacted in the first wave hit we are I hope (despite the political rhetoric and various conspiracy theories) resolved as individuals to do whatever is behest of us by government.

For the purposes of this exercise, my premise is that the first wave of COVID-19 is at the very least in remission and that, step by step, life from here on is likely to get just a little better.

Some of us have coped well and taken the situation in our stride. Others have seriously struggled – not just financially but mentally as well.

One thing is certain – whether it is accurate to say that the ‘strategy’ of lockdown, unpopular though it has been and to a point remains, was based on science whereas the ‘decision’ to go into lockdown in the first place was ‘political’ will undoubtedly be the subject of debate by academics, press and media alike for years to come.

Almost throughout the three-month period of lockdown the government could, it seems, do no right according to media.

The result – and it is a sad fact – is that the UK’s COVID-19 strategy has been turned by press and media into a rather dangerous political football rather than of one that could be seen as an attempt to ‘protect’ and one that could bring all people on-side pulling together in the face of an extraordinary and dangerous unseen enemy.

That is not to suggest that the press and media should not challenge government and ensure proper accountability, but it is to suggest a view that the level of disrespect shown has sometimes been contemptible. Neither can I, hand on heart, suggest that government has always communicated well or that to an extent, it has not been master of its own destiny in the relationship with press, media and public.

We will only know some time after the COVID-19 event, when we can calmly look back, compare and contrast the outcomes of the many different countries impacted, whether by the actions and measures they we took, we could have done better. Benefit of hindsight is of course a fine thing. That we should have been better prepared in terms of medical equipment and PPE is an indisputable fact and, on that basis alone, I sincerely hope that lessons will now have been learned.

If I was physicist or mathematician, one look at the exponential graphs from mid-March demonstrate that carrying on as we were would generate a potentially huge death toll in the UK. I think that we can safely say now, with the benefit of hindsight of course, that would have been nowhere near the 500,000 potential deaths as Neal Ferguson had projected and which government appeared to accept as the basis for immediate lockdown.

Even so, given that after two months of lockdown and disruption we are NOW still well below 40,000 ‘official’ COVID deaths and what have been called 55,000 excess mortality deaths, it is easy to postulate that without such measures being put in place by the government we could well have passed 100,000 deaths without question and that this could well have hit 250,000 over the course of the first wave.

One of the central questions aired under many people’s breath of late has been would 250,000 excess mortality deaths have been a price worth paying in order to maintain economic activity? Yes, I am well aware that this is a ridiculous question to ask simply because no politician worth his or her salt could have withstood the implications of daily newsreels showing overwhelmed A&E wards, coffins being lined up in makeshift mortuaries as had been very openly seen on our TV screens from events that occurred in Italy and Spain.

It is also, as I have already alluded, undoubtedly true that we in the UK were woefully short of sufficient levels of PPE and initially, intensive care beds and sufficient trained nurses and doctors. But, without proffering support or criticism for how this government has handled the COVID-19 pandemic I would contest that if we are going to reflect criticism on the current Boris Johnson-led administration, we must also do the same on each and every past governments over the last 30 years.

I would also contest that while the aftermath of COVID-19 will lead to permanent social and cultural change we take care not to run away with the notion that the NHS is underfunded.

Affordability is and will remain a key issue and we must ensure that while it is the duty of government to ensure the NHS system is properly funded it is also a duty of government to ensure that what the taxpayer provides in terms of financial resource is used efficiently. Politically difficult though this will be, we must at some future point also decide on what level of medical care the State should supply and what should be paid for by the recipient.

Governments have in recent years been accused of underfunding the NHS and of closing hospitals. There may well be some truth in this but do not ignore the NHS spending has risen exponentially over the past twenty years. While I accept that this is not the time to say anything bad about the NHS suffice to say that far too much money has been wasted. Nowhere have the accusations of underfunding been more apparent than funding for A&E and where many accuse governments past and present of abandoning A&E.

The truth is somewhat different – all governments over the past ten years have done what they thought necessary financially to boost A&E units – notwithstanding of course that during the first ten years of the century they built new hospitals that had been financed not by the government itself but often through poorly designed PPP (Public Private Partnership) that benefited the private operator rather than the NHS. The result was that the cost of operation sent many NHS Trusts into the red. Add to this that older hospitals appeared to be closing faster than new ones were being built and, in a rising population and one that expects everything by right, you have no-win situation on your hands.

All that said, it is a sad and indisputable fact that over the past 15 years we have, in effect, abandoned the care sector and it is quite possible that over the coming weeks and months, as we look back on how we handled the COVID-19 crisis, someone will ‘prove’ that the Health Service (with Government agreement) knowingly ‘seeded back’ infected older people to care homes in order to free up hospital beds. The result was a very much higher level of COVID-19 in care homes than would perhaps otherwise have been the case.

The care sector has been an under-funding scandal that goes back several decades and through both Conservative and Labour governments. Bottom line is that through the COVID-19 pandemic the Government found itself ill equipped to withstand the scrutiny of volumes negative news stories about, for instance, shortage of PPE in overwhelmed hospitals and care homes and to which previous government policies and rigid cuts had contributed.

And what about the ’disgraced’ government scientific advisor Prof. Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London who, rather stupidly and being driven by selfishness, failed to accept his own lockdown guidance, and was forced to fall on his own sword? In hindsight, it is unfortunate that the Government accepted the recommendations of the Imperial forecasting group over those of twenty other scientists and various ‘other forecasts that were available.

They reacted to the Ferguson 500,000 number and as a result, our economy will pay a heavy price that will cost all of us dear. In the eyes of many, Ferguson was already ‘disgraced’ because of previous forecasts he made and that had been wrong. More fool government then for using the Imperial base forecast but that said, I am somewhat more inclined than I had been to think that his was an entirely credible ‘reasonable worst-case scenario’ and that is where the messaging went wrong allowing a wrong response.

In short, lockdown was either a ‘knee jerk’ reactive and panicked response, or one that should perhaps better be seen as a calculated response in order to reduce the death rate and what would bound to have been, ensuing criticism. As I have said, I have absolutely no doubt that the Government has made many mistakes through the COVID-19 process – for example let us not forget the January warning signs being ignored – but for balance I would be forced to say that failure to react to what may have appeared to be a credible forecast of up to 500,000 deaths is not one of them.

So where are we now? Up a creek without a paddle or back on the way to normality? Neither because I fear that, as so often in the past following unprecedented events, we overreact and over regulate. On top of how COVID-19 impacted on those unfortunate enough to have suffered the virus firsthand, those who died or lost family members, we should not lose sight of how COVID-19 has impacted mentally. We have learned much and one of many interesting factors is how we have somehow managed to frighten older people by suggesting in mixed, ill-informed, and badly communicated messaging, that they must not leave their homes.

In the meantime, I am fast developing the thought that in respect of where we are on COVID-19 now, there are two stages: The first is that I won’t catch it, because of the measures, or because of low infection rates; and the second, I can’t catch it because I have been inoculated. Sadly, I fear, confidence only returns with the second and that, until and if we get a vaccine, we will remain on some form of lock down, or controlled release and hence controlled infection – which brings me back to the herd immunity strategy.

There can though be little doubt that culturally life may never be quite the same.

Forget the various rules and regulations that have been placed on retailers, aviation industry, leisure and travel industries to name but a few and that will continue to cause economic havoc, perhaps the most serious cultural change is that yet another notch of trust is being removed from how we see and react to each other.

That is not unprecedented of course and we have previously witnessed through fear of how people react to each other on trains and buses following terrorist action.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

About the author: Following a business career in the UK and internationally, Howard Wheeldon spent twenty-eight years as a specialist analyst covering defence, aerospace, engineering and manufacturing sectors. A regular commentator on macro-economic, geo-political, defence and aerospace matters, his primary role today is based on strategic influence support work for UK military and defence and aerospace sectors. Birmingham born, living in London and until recently a member of the Advisory Board of Birmingham University Business School, his regular commentaries are an important and well-recognised part of his strategic influence support work having over 8,500 recipients across the military, industry, Whitehall and Westminster.

The result - and it is a sad fact - is that the UK’s COVID-19 strategy has been turned by press and media into a rather dangerous political football rather than of one that could be seen as an attempt to ‘protect’ and one that could bring all people on-side pulling together in the face of an extraordinary and dangerous unseen enemy.

Howard-Wheeldon - independent specialist analyst