Tim Harford — Article — The virus picks us off unevenly, and an efficient response must recognise that


The virus picks us off unevenly, and an efficient response must recognise that

It is the end of the beginning: lockdowns after the first wave of coronavirus are being tentatively lifted. It is not a step we are taking with any great confidence of success. Rather, we’re easing the lockdowns because we can’t bear to wait any longer. That will mean some difficult decisions ahead, in particular about how we look out for each other in a world where our experiences and the risks we face are dramatically diverging.

It is clear enough that the virus could easily rebound: a systematic study conducted by the Office for National Statistics suggested that 100,000 to 200,000 people in England alone were still infected with the virus in early May. The lockdown has merely bought us time.

One hope is that we can now contain the virus through widespread testing, contact tracing and the supported isolation of infected people. One cogent plan for this comes from the Safra Center at Harvard University.

But the UK seems in no position to implement anything like this plan. Boris Johnson, the prime minister, has promised a contact-tracing system by June 1 that will be “world-beating” — an obnoxious synonym for “excellent”. I do not believe him, particularly since his government has repeatedly misrepresented its record on testing.

The Safra Center plan calls for 2 per cent to 6 per cent of the population being tested every day. In the UK, that would be 1.3m to 4m people daily; we are currently testing well under 100,000 a day. For now, then, we are stuck trying to maximise the benefits of reopening while minimising the risk. That suggests drawing bright lines between those who should unlock and those who should not.

We have long accepted that a supermarket is more of a priority than a restaurant, but other dividing lines would be uncomfortable. Would we be happy for London to reopen while Manchester stays closed, or vice versa? There is a powerful moral case that we should all be going through the same sacrifices at the same time, but if we seek to save the greatest number of lives while destroying the fewest livelihoods, we may have to start drawing distinctions that make us squirm.

The most obvious such distinction would be to ease the lockdown only for the young. In the five weeks from late March to the start of May, nearly 29,000 people over the age of 65 died from Covid-19 in England and Wales. Only 375 people aged under 45 died in the same period. Late boomers and Gen-Xers like me, aged 45-64, are in the middle: nearly 3,500 of us died.

Could we countenance a plan to allow the under-40s back into pubs and restaurants, while the rest of us stick to Zoom and Ocado? Then if signs of herd immunity emerged, we could send in the reserves — the 40-somethings like me.

Is this really a good idea? I am genuinely unsure. Perhaps the practical objection is insuperable: it might be impossible to protect vulnerable people while allowing the virus to run riot in the young. But I suspect the real objection is not practical, but moral. Something about sending half the population out while the other half stays indoors feels unfair. That is true even if it is not entirely clear which side of the age divide is worse off — the ones enduring boredom and isolation inside, or the ones facing the virus.

And what of people who find themselves able to drink in public one day, then banned from their own 40th birthday party the next? Clear distinctions on a spreadsheet or graph start to seem absurd in everyday life.

And it could be much worse. Ethnic minorities are at greater risk; are we to advocate whites-only restaurants and whites-only public transport on the grounds that it is not safe for those with dark skin? The idea is self-evidently repugnant.

Yet the virus does not care about our moral intuitions. It picks us off un­evenly, and an effective response must recognise that. We are going to have to develop a language of social solidarity even as our individual experiences diverge. Even during the lockdown, many people have continued to experience the freedoms and anxieties of going to work as normal. The very nature of the lockdown means it is easy to forget that other people are leading very different lives. One doctor friend of mine, on a video call a fortnight ago, asked: “So . . . have the rest of you really just been at home, seeing only your families, for the last six weeks?” Yes. We really have.

We must develop new ethical codes. “Stay at home, protect the NHS” was a start, but over the coming months we must look for principles that offer the same moral force but far more practical subtlety. “Grandparents: stay home so that your grandchildren can go back to school.” “Home workers are heroes too,” because they reduce density in the big cities. We are all in this together.

And yet increasingly, we are all in this separately. That is a challenge we have yet fully to confront.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 22 May 2020.

My NEW book The Next Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy is NOW OUT. Details, and to order on Hive, Blackwells, Amazon or Watersones. Bill Bryson comments, “Endlessly insightful and full of surprises — exactly what you would expect from Tim Harford.”



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