Watch the webinar
- James Harding, Co-founder and Editor, Tortoise Media (Chair)
- Dame Carolyn Fairbairn, Director-General, CBI
- The Rt Hon Matt Hancock MP, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care
An update on the infection numbers
According to the Rt Hon Matt Hancock MP, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, the government’s overall strategy is to suppress the virus as much as possible, while protecting the economy, the NHS and schools, until a vaccine is found. The goal is to use as little national measures as possible, and to focus on firmer local reactions. Unfortunately, over recent days and weeks, the data is showing a sharp acceleration in cases and hospitalisation rates.
Some have suggested that the second peak could see fewer hospitalisations and deaths from the virus. But due to the lag in the number of infections to hospitalisation and deaths, comparing today’s case rate to today’s hospitalisation or mortality rate doesn’t work. That said, the case rate is an early indicator of upcoming problems.
Key questions from businesses
Dame Carolyn Fairbairn, the CBI’s Director-General, said she felt there had been a good partnership between government and business during the first part of the pandemic, and highlighted some of those successes, including COVID-secure workplaces, and opening up parts of the economy. But she feels there are five key issues that businesses are worrying about right now:
- Clarity on the different types of lockdowns
- Support packages that come out at the same time as restrictions
- Ensuring restrictions are evidence-based
- Workplace testing
- How to get people flying again.
And Matt confirmed that he understands where Carolyn is coming from and clarified that the government takes actions with enormous reluctance, because they know the wider impact they can have. The government is trying to take steps in as open and evidence-based a way as possible, but there are judgements that must be made. The 10pm curfew, for example, is based on the logic that people are less likely to social distance late at night.
The priorities of the Test & Trace scheme
Matt confirmed that his number one priority is expanding testing capacity. And he’s willing to ‘put his head on the block’ to set ambitious goals – they’re on track to increase testing capacity to 500,000 by the end of October. The second priority is new technologies that will improve testing, such as field testing and improving lab technology.
One of the critical issues in testing is avoiding false positives – because if a test tells someone they’re fine when they actually do have the virus, this is actively dangerous. There’s also an issue with on-the-day testing, in that it doesn’t always work because of the incubation period – hence the problems with airport testing. Finally, the government haven’t set any targets for mass testing yet, but they have no doubt this expansion will help us manage the virus. The first line of defence remains social distancing, at least until we have a vaccine.
Lockdowns and restrictions
The conversation around lockdowns and restrictions focused on three issues: Firstly, clarity and a potential tiering system, secondly, economic support running alongside local lockdowns, and finally, the potential of a ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown. Matt confirmed that there are essentially only two strategies to manage the virus: one is to suppress the virus until we have a vaccine, and the other is to “let the virus rip”. The second strategy would likely lead to a significant number of excess deaths, so the only option the government has is to bring the virus under control in a way that is least damaging to the economy and the country.
Matt added that clearly economic support is an important part of our response to the virus. The government is looking to bring clarity wherever they can, but part of the reason the local lockdowns can vary so much is that they were designed in partnership with local councils. Matt also recognised the importance of businesses getting advanced notice of a potential circuit breaker, but given the virus is moving fast, the government may have to act suddenly at extreme speed. “It’s a difficult balance”, he added.
Economic support and recovery
Carolyn thinks that the economic support provided by the government so far has been “outstanding”. But as the measures are changing and becoming more focused, some sectors are doing well while others are on their knees. We know there’s also been a regional impact too. Carolyn added that while the business community have shown their resilience through this pandemic, overnight changes in no regulation with no financial support can be flooring for business. Synchronicity is key. Matt added that once the virus has passed, we’ll need a massive economic recovery where we learn from what’s worked well and what hasn’t. And in some areas, we’ll never go back. So, a partnership between business and government will be vital.