The choices we make about coronavirus are way more complex than ‘lives v the economy’ | Zoe Williams | Opinion

Splits in the cabinet emerged at the weekend: according to rumour, the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, and the home secretary, Priti Patel, were in favour of a shorter lockdown to avert the worst of the economic consequences, while Michael Gove and the health secretary, Matt Hancock, wanted a longer one, to limit fatalities.

The lockdown has taken on recognisable political contours: the fundamentalists on one side, putting the markets first, the moderates on the other, prioritising humans. These dividing lines extend beyond the cabinet and the governing party, to become a new shorthand in an old culture war. The right wants to get back to business as usual; the left wants a lockdown for as long as it takes.

That is the wrong way to approach these decisions, which will entail constant and painful trade-offs. Conceptually, we find it easiest to focus on the things we can count. So we talk about stock markets, about businesses going bust and about unemployment as a cost to the exchequer – and the imperative to lift the lockdown thus becomes a purely economic one. And on the other hand, we talk about numbers infected, numbers of ventilators, numbers of dead. Yet behind all these numbers, there are people, whose physical and mental health are symbiotic: people to whose wellbeing the virus is not the only threat.

Even while recessions are not historically associated with higher mortality, our recent experience of fiscal contraction and austerity was of huge numbers of excess deaths. There are impacts that aren’t yet visible but which we nevertheless cannot ignore; Anne Case, co-author of Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, pointed out recently that the negative effects of unemployment won’t show up for perhaps five years but have to be part of our consideration, even while this provides no obvious, definitive course of action.

Likewise, isolation has its own health impact. People who were already suffering serious mental illness, or were already housebound with disabilities, have seen many of their support networks capsize overnight, which will create its own tragedies. People living in overcrowded conditions, without green space, will have a potentially devastating experience of self-isolation.

You can’t even generalise across the category of “childhood” – an affluent kid in year seven is just having a really long Easter holiday. A kid in year 11, ready for GCSEs, relying on free school meals, is facing something much starker. We were encouraged by Patel at the weekend to think of those living in abusive relationships, and perhaps stick a supportive logo, declaring “you are not alone”, in our windows. Our sympathetic thoughts are insufficient to the point of insult; we need to think seriously about the hidden hardship this confinement entails, and it is humane to do so, not the act of some hard-boiled bread-head.

None of this is an argument against the lockdown, or even for a shorter period of constraint. It is not at all clear when any of the restrictions could be lifted, or in which order. It is a fruitless discussion to have before we have greater clarity on testing, greater confidence that the antibody tests will work.

Rather, it’s a plea for the subtlety and complexity of the question to be reflected in the way it is discussed. If we allow this to calcify into a debate between right and left, the plurality of views collapses into two as we all line up behind our team. Expertise is so often characterised by uncertainty, knowing enough to know that every decision contains pros and cons, consequences both foreseeable and not. Binary debates invite absolute views, and chase away the frustrating complexities of knowledge, in favour of arguments that can obliterate one another. It actually isn’t fair – and I never thought I’d feel so sympathetic to them – on the politicians of any party, to turn decisions so seismic into questions of loyalty to a pre-existing agenda.

Meanwhile, there are many questions that plainly are political, which we’re asked by the government not to politicise. The provision of protective equipment to NHS and social care staff is not the unknowable conundrum that the health secretary pretends it is, with his intimations that staff are misusing it, and his airy talk of targets hoped for rather than targets met. There is an obvious duty on the state, if it’s asking people to risk their lives, to protect those people to the very limits of its ability.

Likewise, the testing of NHS staff, of care workers, of bus drivers, of prison officers, of the wider population, this is all a matter for public debate. It is legitimate to interrogate policy every step of the way, and reasonable to point out hypocrisy or incompetence. It would be derelict not to scrutinise decisions around sick pay and other entitlements, income protection for those in insecure work. In the grim daily death toll, it is right to ask how the tragedy is being distributed, what can be done to address the disproportionate risk faced by those in low-paid work, why black and minority ethnic people comprise such a high number of the total, how to narrow these health inequalities in real time. A nation may come together in the face of an emergency, but it doesn’t need to switch its brain off.

Yet the way forward, murky and obscure, is made no clearer by partisanship. If we build the strategy of the next phase well, it will be short on fireworks. There will be no grandstanding or rabble-rousing; it will be hard to tell who’s on which team; there will be a large variety of expert voices, making points subtle enough that to hear the differences between them, we’ll have to listen; it will be conducted in pastels not neon. The pandemic appears to distill politics down to its barest essentials: do you care about money, or do you care about people? The only problem is, it doesn’t.

Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist

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