China's coronavirus victory might be short-lived

11 March 2020

3:57 AM

11 March 2020

3:57 AM

I’ve just been talking to a Government official about ‘how the market is being sounded out’ about the cost and availability of ‘mobile morgues’. It is obvious this sort of contingency planning – emergency procurement of industrial refrigeration, in essence – is sensible and necessary, given reasonable worst case scenario estimates that additional deaths stemming from Covid-19 would run to several hundred thousand. The practicalities are grim.

That said there is seemingly reassuring news out of China today, in the disclosure that the daily rise in new Covid-19 cases has fallen to a relatively small 19. Even if the stats aren’t rock solid, they must approximate the truth, given that president Xi Jinping has emerged from his self-imposed purdah to celebrate them. This stabilisation of infections at circa 80,000, in a population of 1.4 billion, is – on the face of it – an extraordinary achievement, and shows what can be done when the might of an all-powerful centralised state takes action to restrict the freedom of movement of its people.

Apart from anything else, if the number of deaths at 3,000 is any sign of what draconian ‘social distancing’ measures (de facto 24 hour curfews) can achieve, then our new mobile morgues would remain unused. Phew. But there is a big but.

What is unclear is whether the Hubei-wide policy of virtually imprisoning people in their homes has kept the virus at bay to such an extent that most of the population has not built up the antibodies and viral immunity. This would be a mixed blessing, because it would imply that when these Chinese citizens are allowed to socialise once more, the virus would proliferate again.

Or to put it another way, it is unclear whether Xi’s victory against Covid-19 is simply temporary. For what it is worth, our prime minister, health secretary and scientific advisers are desperate to know the answer to this question, because it will condition what they do next to keep us safe. They and we won’t know unless and until the Chinese authorities conduct a thorough survey of Hubei’s people to find out how many of them have actually had the virus but so mildly or asymptomatically that they have not been included in the official stats.

Even if we give Xi the benefit of the doubt and credit him with triumph, there is both benign and hard news for us in the west. It obviously means that the risks of infection from China to the rest of the world is diminishing. But it begs very challenging questions for us about our cherished freedoms, especially our right to go where we want when we want, and to commune with whomever we choose.

As I said, if China has held back the tide of this form of coronavirus, it has done so by extreme coercion of citizens and turning Hubei and its mega city Wuhan into de facto prisons. Maybe we in the west would be prepared to similarly confine ourselves to barracks for weeks and months, though I am dubious.

But if we are, the relative economic cost for us would probably feel disproportionately greater. Because a lockdown of the UK, similar to what is happening in Italy, would lead to massive earning losses for millions of people and severe difficulties for hundreds of thousands of businesses. All of which would probably feel worse in an economy like ours or Italy’s, which have been stagnating for years, than in a China that is still growing in underlying terms at four per cent or five per cent per annum.

As I said on Monday on News at Ten, the uncertainties around both the health and economic costs of Covid-19 are on a scale beyond even the uncertainties around the parlous condition of our banks in 2007. That degree of uncertainty, especially in mature economies, is almost lethally cancerous. Which is why what the chancellor says in the budget on Wednesday, and what the governor of Bank of England will shortly say, about how they will underwrite and cover that risk to our incomes is the economic medicine we await with hope and trepidation.

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Robert Peston is ITV’s political editor. This article originally appeared on his ITV news blog

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