The decision by the Government to stop short of more far-reaching measures to tackle coronavirus — implemented by some of our closest European neighbours, as well as China and other countries further afield — has inevitably raised questions about whether the right approach is being taken.
Those expressing doubt include former health secretary Jeremy Hunt, now chairman of the Commons health select committee, who writes for the Evening Standard of his surprise that “social distancing” measures such as stopping visits to care homes weren’t recommended by the Prime Minister yesterday.
Mr Hunt also suggests the lockdown in China and similarly aggressive steps taken in countries such as Japan and Taiwan have shown that “acting early matters” in a further indication of his disquiet at the Government’s course.
Whether he and other critics are right is, of course, hard to know in such an unprecedented situation. But the benefit of the doubt should, at this stage, be given to the Government, which insists it is following the advice of its most senior scientists and acting in a way that, contrary to the assertions of some, is intended to minimise loss of life in the period that the virus is with us.
That point has been reiterated again today by Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, who explained that the strategy being pursued aims to spread out the effect of the disease and reduce the height of its peak, rather than coming down too hard now and creating a risk of a “bounceback” bigger surge later on.
It’s inevitably a gamble, but one that’s based on science and it’s sensible for ministers to heed his advice and that of his colleague, Professor Chris Whitty, the Government’s Chief Medical Officer.
None of this means, however, that more drastic measures should be off the agenda, even in the short term, if the evidence on the ground starts to alter the scientific picture.
Indeed, events already appear to be overtaking the Government to some extent with the widespread cancellation of sporting fixtures looking likely to make redundant any need for ministers to implement the ban that they have so far avoided.
Other large gatherings are also being abandoned, although West End theatres are seeking to stave off potentially financially disastrous closures by introducing their own social distancing rules and even stopping autograph signings at the stage door.
Ministers will need to watch closely and assess how effective such voluntary steps are in the coming days. Many people, whose livelihoods depend on life continuing with at least some semblance of normality, will hope that they do.
It should not be forgotten that destroying jobs and income unnecessarily through overhasty action could also have severe consequences, including hitting the physical and mental well-being of those affected.
Nonetheless, preventing deaths must come first and as the Government continues with the difficult balancing act of deciding what is best to do next, it must remain agile and ready to go further more rapidly than it currently intends.
Lives are at stake, and difficult decisions lie ahead that must be got right.
Use Tube fare hike wisely
Today brings an announcement by Mayor Sadiq Khan that he is abandoning the Tube fare freeze that he has operated for the past four years and will instead raise fares if he is returned to City Hall in the forthcoming mayoral election.
Necessity has forced his hand because of the large hole in Transport for London’s budget, caused partly by the delayed Crossrail project.
Although higher fares will be painful, it should at least mean that more money is available for service upgrades.
But the test for Mayor Khan, if he does get re-elected, will be to ensure the cash is well spent. It must be.
Londoners need a good transport system, and any extra money they pay must not be wasted.