Why I will be lifting a cautious pint to Super Saturday

Paul Nuki
A socially distanced beer garden in Berlin, Germany - Getty
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It’s been a long six months since China revealed a new pathogen had broken out around a wet market in Wuhan.

I’m proud that the Telegraph was the first UK newspaper to cover the story and prouder still that, on February 29, we dedicated an entire section like this to the subject.

That was a full three weeks before lockdown. We revealed the strategy of flattening the curve, the impending pressure on the NHS and the importance of good hygiene. From your letters and comments, it’s clear Telegraph readers did more than most to slow the spread of the virus.

Today, after three months, Britain’s pubs, restaurants, hairdressers, cinemas, museums and galleries are opening again. Hopefully, it will be a day we remember fondly; a day which, as Boris Johnson put it, marks “our long national hibernation beginning to come to an end”; an independence day to be celebrated with fireworks in years to come.

I will certainly be lifting a pint (perhaps two) but I will do so cautiously in a pub with hand sanitiser at the gate and a well-spaced beer garden.

I’ve managed to avoid Sars-Cov-2 so far and at 56, with a one-in-a-hundred chance of popping my clogs if I catch it, I want to keep it that way. There is, as yet, no evidence the bug is losing its potency, but the further away in time you get from the bat that sparked it, the greater that chance becomes.

For the most part, we Britons remain sensibly cautious. Nearly seven in ten of us say we would be comfortable meeting friends or family outside, according to Ipsos Mori. That’s up five points since mid-May and makes good sense because transmission is much lower in the open air.

On the other hand, three in five of us remain uncomfortable about the idea of going to a bar or restaurant, and most of us would still avoid indoor cinemas, theatres, public transport, indoor gyms and swimming pools. This again makes sense, as all these indoor spaces have been associated with so-called super spreading events in Europe and around the world.

The reimposition of a lockdown in Leicester this week is a timely reminder we are not yet out of the woods and points to many months of local flare-ups to come. We have seen them in South Korea, Singapore, Germany, Portugal and many other countries which, like Britain, have successfully suppressed the first wave of the outbreak. The up-side is that in localities with lower transmission life can start to return to normal as we are seeing today.

How good we become at local cluster-busting is likely to define the nation’s performance in the next phase of the pandemic. Some say we have had a poor first half (and it’s true our death rates look dreadful compared to many others) but my guess is that “Super Saturday” only marks half-time. The chief medical officer Prof Chris Whitty has spent his career studying outbreaks and has fought a few, so when he says Sars-Cov-2 is going to be with us until at least the spring we would be wise to listen.

Of the last 10 respiratory pandemics, five had two or more waves, four of those after a summer trough. The Spanish Flu of 1918 famously came back in winter with a surge more deadly than the first. And, as we reported on Thursday, Melbourne looks to be facing a second peak as Australia’s winter sets in.

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But it would be wrong to take a fatalistic view. As many countries in South East Asia have demonstrated, there is nothing inevitable about the spread of this contagion. We may have been caught unprepared at the start but we are ready now.

With mass testing, contact tracing and isolation of new cases we should be able to fend off a second wave if it comes. Those defences will not just save lives but are key to keeping our economy ticking over; the only way to bank the optimistic “V-shaped” recovery that economists talk about.

Of course, that’s a tough message for business. Beyond the estimated 65,000 who have died directly or indirectly from Covid-19 in the UK, it is the closure of so many companies, large and small, that is most terrifying. As the Prime Minister said on Tuesday, if the virus was the lightning strike, we are yet to feel the full force of the economic thunderclap to come.

Just as individuals are adjusting their behaviour, companies must adapt their business models. Waiting for the government to open everything up is a forlorn hope. Even if the Prime Minister were somehow bounced into ordering it, the polling data above shows that footfall is unlikely to return to normal for a very long time to come.

The sad truth is that the only option for many businesses in the year ahead is to pivot into something entirely new. 

So, do we have the patience and collective will to see the pandemic through? I’m ultimately optimistic. The vast bulk of us have behaved wisely from the start and many of the shops and small businesses in my neighbourhood have successfully adapted to the new normal – several of them reporting that they are doing better than they ever have.

Even Whitehall is catching up. Its Rolls Royce sheen faded decades ago and its capacity was cut to ribbons after the financial crisis, but even now it retains a certain momentum. By the end of summer, I suspect the Department of Health will, at long last, have a pandemic-fighting infrastructure in place. It will be more Heath Robinson than “world-beating”, but it should do the job.

And with that, I’ll leave you to the beer garden. Raise a glass to the things that have gone right, those that have been lost, and our collective resilience in the long winter ahead.

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