The crisis facing hospitals is truly awful and cannot be understated. But while the short term situation is grim, it is important that we detach the immediate challenges from the post-vaccine outlook. They are radically different landscapes and must be addressed separately.
Before enough people are vaccinated against Covid-19, we can't pull any punches in cracking down on the virus. This is not just because of the increased transmissibility of this new variant, or the huge challenges facing the NHS, but because with the vaccine being rolled out we are so close to success against this awful virus.
The lower the infection rates, the sooner we can relax restrictions properly. So it is in all our interests to do everything we can to suppress infections rates now.
No one wants them, but draconian measures for a shorter period are preferable to looser restrictions for longer. Once the vaccine is sufficiently rolled out, this means that, once infections are brought down, then it will be easier to keep down infection and death rates.
For now, though, we should do whatever it takes now to minimalise social contact, suppress the virus and protect the NHS – even if that means stronger enforcement and tougher restrictions now. Over the next two months, we will be battling a public health catastrophe and should do everything we can to support that effort.
But from spring onwards, the focus will switch to delivering an economic recovery – and there are things we can and should do now to support that too. Britain's economy has taken a battering, but there are many growth industries that want to help drive our country’s economic recovery once it is safe to do so. One of these is the UK music industry. To get ready, what we require is both certainty and confidence to start preparations now and be ready to support the recovery. When it comes to confidence, the vital importance of a government-backed insurance scheme for live events has been laid out with commendable clarity by Julian Knight MP. This insurance scheme will allow organisers of big festivals to prepare for the summer, knowing that if the situation is not as optimistic as it should be by then, they will not face ruinous financial consequences.
What is also equally vital is an indicative date for when things may open up properly again. The pandemic has taught us to expect the unexpected. But businesses – and, in particular, organisers of major festivals and events – need time to prepare. They have complex supply chains, and most major festivals need at least six to eights months to prepare. Decisions about summer are being taken now and, without certainty, many will soon start to cancel.
An indication of when restrictions will be eased is also key for many other sectors. So many businesses are on the edge right now – for many of them, knowing when they might be able to reopen again is the difference between hanging on or permanently putting up the shutters.
So it is clear that we need more clarity on what the reopening process will look like when these hard next few months are behind us. If it is to be a gradual process like last year, what will we see when? We need to know when Government thinks it will be safe to hold mass events again. April? June? September? And what will the conditions be? The music industry is already engaging in testing pilots and many venues are installing air purification systems that radically reduce the risk of transmission. We have been keen to support the public health effort and do whatever we can to keep people safe. An early steer from Government as to what conditions they envisage events taking place under would help us support that effort further.
Six months ago, setting out a date for the end of the pandemic with confidence was inconceivable. With an approved vaccine, it's now possible. But this calculation depends on a series of questions: how many people need to be vaccinated? What levels do infections, hospitalisations and deaths need to fall to? Will restrictions ease when vulnerable people are vaccinated? If so, what percentage of these people must get the jab before we can consider ending the current lockdown? These questions should be informed and guided by science and epidemiological opinion, but are risk-based judgements and so are ultimately political decisions.
The Health Secretary Matt Hancock has promised that we will have a 'great summer'. This is welcome, but unless people and businesses are given formal notice of when this will likely start, it will be a silent summer. The music industry does not want to open up before it is right to do so – we simply want to know when the government believes it will be safe for us to do that, so that we can prepare and be ready to help drive the eventual post-pandemic economic and cultural recovery. This, surely, is in the whole country’s interests.
Of course, that recovery will only be possible if we do whatever it takes to defeat this virus now. It may seem strange to be advocating tougher restrictions in the shorter term while calling for the government to be more explicit about relaxations in the medium to long term, but the new reality of the vaccine means that the former enables the latter.
There are also potential compliance benefits: too many people seem to think the current restrictions are open ended: giving the public a clear end date for the current measures and stressing that they are temporary will help to drive compliance.
For the sake of the NHS and the public health effort and to prevent our hospitals from becoming overwhelmed, we need better compliance in the short term; for the sake of the economy we need more certainty in the long term. The two are not mutually exclusive: the government can achieve both at the same time.
The pandemic response has often (wrongly) been framed as health vs economy – but tougher enforcement and, if necessary, even tighter restrictions in conjunction with more long-term clarity for businesses would benefit the NHS and benefit the economy.
Jamie Njoku-Goodwin is chief executive of UK Music, and a former special adviser at the Department for Health and Social Care