Denial. Panic. False dawn. Relief mingled with a decent dollop of euphoria. Britain’s response to Covid-19 has moved through distinct phases, and there are at least two more to come. Despite the success of the vaccine programme, a look around the world – to India, to Chile, to Brazil, to France and Germany – can lead to only one conclusion: this is not over yet.
The early stages of the crisis are now easy to document. The denial phase lasted from the first cases of Covid-19 being reported in China towards the end of 2019 until the middle of March 2020. Initially, perhaps, some scepticism was warranted because there had been talk of global pandemics in the past that had not lived up to their horror-show billing.
By the end of February, though, it was clear that this one did, but the UK government – in common with Donald Trump’s administration in the US – was slow to act. Financial markets were quicker to enter stage two – panic – and by the time draconian lockdowns were announced they had plunged amid fears that the biggest threat to global health since the post-first world war Spanish flu outbreak would lead to a new Great Depression.
The panic phase, too, was relatively short-lived but involved frantic activity on the part of central banks and finance ministries. Workers left idle due to the enforced closure of businesses were effectively put on the state payroll. Financial markets were lubricated by quantitative easing, purchases of assets by central banks that acts as a form of money creation. The message went out that policymakers would do whatever it took.
Up to a point, this action was a success. The UK economy contracted by a quarter between February and April, but by the end of that period it had started to stabilise. As restrictions were eased during the spring of 2020, there was a sense – fostered by ministers – that the end was in sight. This was the false dawn phase – the time when the opening up of hospitality venues was hailed as independence day and the Treasury