STEPHEN GLOVER: Young to pay heavy price for cost of fighting virus

STEPHEN GLOVER: The old may be most at risk from coronavirus, but I fear the young are set to pay a heavy price for the financial cost of fighting it

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Both Boris Johnson and the Chancellor Rishi Sunak have said they will spend ‘whatever it takes’ to beat coronavirus. Neither of them has the faintest idea what the final cost will be.

By offering vast loans of hundreds of billions of pounds to companies (some of which may never be paid back), and by paying 80 per cent of the salaries of workers who can’t work up to £2,500 a month, the Government has written a blank cheque. This cheque has been signed by the British taxpayer.

No one knows how long the crisis will last, or what the damage to the economy will be when it is over. But it seems probable that government borrowing will soon dwarf the £150 billion annual deficit racked up by Labour following the 2008-2009 financial crisis.


Both Boris Johnson, pictured left, and the Chancellor Rishi Sunak, pictured right, have said they will spend ‘whatever it takes’ to beat coronavirus

Remember that the mind-boggling sums being thrown around by the Treasury at the scourge of coronavirus have to be borrowed — and so paid back. Remember, too, that the current yearly debt repayment is already larger than the entire defence budget.

It’s likely that, when the disease has finally been beaten, unemployment will have soared and the economy will have contracted by anything from five to an unprecedented 20 per cent.

Doubtless there will be a fairly rapid bounce back, but the Government’s tax receipts will be sharply reduced, making debt repayment even more arduous.

Let’s be in no doubt that our country faces years of austerity that will almost certainly make the past decade look like a minor irritant. Baby-boomers have the recompense of having enjoyed the good times. But the lives of our children are likely to be blighted for years to come.

As a father of two young men, this grieves me. When I am not worrying about their health, I am fretting about their long-term future. I’ve no doubt there are thousands, if not millions, of parents thinking similar thoughts.

We have to ask ourselves a rather shocking question. Is it right that, in order to save the lives of mostly elderly people (I accept that some younger people are at risk, but they constitute a comparatively small minority), the future lives of millions should be devastated?

I imagine some among the young think it’s not right — which may be why a few of them are flouting the Government’s rules. I suspect a greater number are silently resentful. Such people have been the chief victims of austerity, and they are being asked to carry the can again.

Be assured I don’t share this view. But we should examine it. In a spirit of fairness I will bring forward three witnesses who suggest that draconian anti-coronavirus measures could create bigger problems than they solve.

Many young people, including these swimmers pictured in Eastbourne today, have been accused of flouting the Government’s rules, but are they the ones who will suffer the most as a result of the coronavirus crisis?

One is Bryan Turner, an emeritus professor of experimental genetics. In a recent letter to The Times, he suggested there might come a time when the Government’s medicine caused unacceptable economic harm. ‘As a 72-year-old,’ he wrote, ‘I would rather take my chances with Covid-19 than see further damage inflicted on my children’s future.’

A second witness is Philip Thomas, professor of risk management at Bristol University. He has just published a paper arguing that if the economy shrinks by more than 6.5 per cent, the ill effects in terms of lower life expectancy and other health problems will outweigh the benefits of saving lives from the ravages of the contagion.

I introduce my third witness with some embarrassment since he is President Trump, who has had a wretched few weeks, swerving from one extreme position to another. Nevertheless, many sane people will have agreed with his statement that ‘we cannot let the cure be worse than the problem’.

What are we to make of such responses? The two professors appear essentially utilitarian, and believe the right moral choice is the one which produces the greatest good for the greatest number. One snag with this approach is that it is impossible in practice to compare two unknown dangers. Professor Thomas may be the best risk management expert in the world, but he can’t really know how many lives will be lost by coronavirus or the effects of a smaller economy.

As for Professor Turner, note that he says he would rather put his life at risk than see more damage done to his children — not that he would rather die. And while one respects his personal preferences, he can’t expect all those over 70 to share them.

I don’t know whether Donald Trump could be described as a utilitarian but there is a lot of common sense in his remark. The difficulty lies in determining at what point the cure might become ‘worse than the problem’.

Young people were spotted sunbathing in Piccadilly Gardens, Manchester, today, and fears are growing that the financial fallout of the coronavirus will hit them hardest

What these three men say shouldn’t be summarily dismissed, and I don’t doubt many will instinctively agree with them. The main objection, it seems to me, is that they don’t take full account of human realities.

Our Government — just like those in France, Germany, Italy, Spain and even the United States, despite Trump’s shilly-shallying — is in the position of a firefighter confronted with a conflagration which must be put out, however much water is needed.

To continue the analogy: if all the water is used, and there isn’t enough left to irrigate the crops next year, that is a great pity, but the thought can’t be allowed to interfere with the process of trying to extinguish the fire.

The practical impulse to save human life is so central to our moral traditions that it cannot be attenuated by fine calculations about whether it would be wiser to hold back greater resources for the future.

But what if the Government is wrong and has exaggerated the extent of the threat? That is a real worry. According to Sunetra Gupta, a professor of theoretical epidemiology at Oxford University, as much as half the British population might have already been affected by a mild form of coronavirus, and have built up immunity.

If that were the case, the outbreak would be both shorter and much less severe than No 10 fears, and so necessitate far less extreme measures. The only way to find out, as Professor Gupta argues, is by widespread testing. I do wish the Government would get on with it.

Incidentally, the divergence between the Oxford study and the guidance the Government has been receiving shows that experts don’t always agree. Boris Johnson takes refuge in the mantra that he is ‘following the science’. Yet it is folly to assume that scientific advice is uniform concerning so unfamiliar a phenomenon as coronavirus.

That said, if the danger is truly as grave as No 10 believes, the Government is right to throw the kitchen sink at the problem. When death rates begin to decline in a few weeks or months, it will be time for minds to turn to rescuing the economy.

And when that gigantic work of reconstruction begins, I hope the political class won’t repeat the mistakes made after the last recession, and allow the burden of austerity to fall most on younger people.

God knows, it will be heavy enough as it is. But the Government must do everything it can in the coming years to convince the young that they do have a future.

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