Robert Peston

The cost of Britain’s coronavirus lockdown is mounting

The cost of Britain's coronavirus lockdown is mounting
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Thursday's meeting of the emergency Cobra committee that takes decisions on how to protect us from the ravages of Covid-19 was supposed to be a 15-minute formality, to rubber-stamp a decision, to make no decision at all on when and whether to ease these unprecedented on our freedoms.

But because the telecoms connections for this video conference call were ropey and the ministers chaired by the First Secretary of State Dominic Raab struggled to be understood, the 15 minutes extended to a frustrating 45 minutes.

Even so, ministers did decide to mandate the government's scientists, on the so-called SAGE committee, to gather the data necessary to inform a political decision on how and when to return our way of life to something that feels a bit more like normal.

So the plan is that, at the end of next week, there should be an announcement of the skeleton of an idea of a possible programme that might allow businesses to function a bit more normally, and for us to be in the presence of (though not close to) our nearest and dearest.

That said, ministers caution me that the current lockdown will continue for several weeks yet, not least because we are some days from seeing the peak usage of intensive care beds by Covid19 sufferers – and, in the words of the government's chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, daily deaths from the terrible virus will continue to rise for another 14 days or so after that peak (such is the lag between entry to intensive care and either death or recovery).

For what it's worth, that implies the UK may well be heading for a Covid-19 death toll of at least 30,000 people. Which elevates it well beyond a bad winter flu.

Ministers are aware quite how high the stakes have become, and not just because of potential mortality. They are shocked that the damage already caused to the economy is considerably worse than they expected.

It is striking, for example, that the Bank of England warned tonight that economic 'activity is like to decline much more sharply' than it war-gamed in recent stress tests. Many more companies than they expected have more or less shut down – and are therefore claiming tens of billions of pounds in subsidies for their employees' wages via the furlough scheme or grants under the small-business support scheme.

And, as the Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey said last night on my show, the number of new claims for Universal Credit is running at three times the normal rate, and the number of new claims in total since the onset of the lockdown has surged by 1.2million. Little wonder the Bank of England made available increased direct lending to the government through what is in effect an overdraft called the Ways and Means facility.

Even if the government can borrow what it needs from investors by selling government bonds or gilts to them, the rate at which it is having to subsidise millions of people's incomes is both fast and unpredictable – so the buffer of an overdraft is essential.

But it is not just the profound shock to the economy, and the cost especially to those on lower incomes, that is troubling ministers. There is growing evidence of significant mental health trauma for those in isolation. So work is going on, encouraged by the NHS, to evaluate whether all those in the most extreme form of the lockdown, those who need the most complete shielding because of their frailties, could be allowed a bit more social contact.

This question about whether there are some categories of vulnerable people who could be released from shielding is urgent work in progress, I am told.

There is a final source of deep anxiety to ministers, namely that the squeeze on NHS capacity caused by Covid-19 is significantly impairing the health service's ability to help those suffering from other acute and chronic illnesses and conditions. In other words lives will be lost that would otherwise be saved.

All of which makes it incredibly complicated to know how and when to give us back some of our freedoms, even without considering that there are not yet adequate therapies for those suffering from the virus, or sufficient testing capacity to determine who in the community has or has had the virus, or technology to carry out "contact tracing" of those who've been in the presence of an infected person. So I would be staggered if next week there was a firm timetable to allow life to resume a bit more in the old way.

At best, there may be a nod to when schools will re-open, as a possible first stage, and whether in general we'll get a phased and staggered national return to normal life or an 'adaptive' plan that is sensitive to surges of infection in different communities.

My guess is there will be a nod towards a very gradual return of our freedoms, with the emphasis on desperately trying to limit the economic harm. But I wouldn't plan on holding street parties any time soon.

Written byRobert Peston

Robert Peston is Political Editor of ITV News and host of the weekly political discussion show Peston. This post originally appeared on his ITV News blog

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