Blain’s Morning Porridge, 15 Sept 2020: The New Battle of Britain

Blain’s Morning Porridge – 15th September 2020: The new Battle of Britain

“Never so much owed to so few.”

Today is the 80th anniversary of the climax of The Battle of Britain. After weeks trying to win air superiority and clobbering 11 Group airfields, the Luftwaffe were given orders to hit London with the biggest raids yet. Far from encountering a few ragtag squadrons cobbled together from the last patched up Spitfires and Hurricanes, London was in range of the RAF reserves held North of London. The RAF’s full force hit the Germans and the Big Wings shot them down in droves. 

Later this morning my home village will get a fly-past: the Supermarine Spitfire factory is just down the road, while Hamble’s airfield was the base of the Spitfire-Girls, the Ladies of the Air Transport Auxiliary, who delivered the iconic fighters to RAF bases across the land. There is nothing like the sound of a Merlin engine to brighten up one’s day.

What we remember today is the Blitz spirit, when the whole nation cheerfully rallied to face down the enemy menace. Our resilience then shocked and surprised the world.

As we wake to the news 700,000 UK jobs have been lost to Covid, and redundancies are rising at their fastest rate since 2008, its likely to get worse as the furlough programme ends, and the approaching winter ends our struggling efforts to staycation. Compare and contrast Winston’s rhetoric in 1940 with Boris Johnson’s incoherence today…

I’m sure it’s just a coincidence, but British casualties from the Blitz that followed the Battle of Britain were around 43,000, a not dissimilar number to those who have died from Covid.

The official number of cumulative deaths in the UK ascribed to COVID this morning is 41,637.

That number says little about the human tragedy of each case. It also says nothing about the unidentified excess deaths from the “Big Five” killers that take 150,000 mainly elderly Brits each year. We should shortly be able to work out real excess deaths: how many more dementia sufferers departed early, heart attacks which killed because patients stayed home, cancers missed, respiratory diseases untreated or recorded as Covid, or strokes that missed the golden first hour because hospitals were focused on the disease.

These will be cold statistical numbers. No official data will record the grief, the anxiety, the mental stress the pandemic has raised. It won’t record the social consequences of lockdown or the misery and hopelessness of those who lose their jobs and the financial stresses they face. The markets will tell us all about the long-term economic damage inflicted – rightly or wrongly – on our island.

The numbers won’t record the shattered dreams of young people who make up the bulk of employees in tourism, hospitality and travel who have been most impacted by job losses. That has serious social implications in terms of future votes. It was demonstrating against Margaret Thatcher’s destruction of the Scottish economy in my early 20s that moulded me into the closet lefty I remain today – although I did grow up just enough not to vote for Corbyn last year.

What we will remember long-term about the Pandemic is fear and anxiety, and the apparent confusion in government. The banality of “the rule of six” when we are being told to go back to work is insane. Sound bites don’t make up for stupidity. Resilience has gone out the window. We have become a nation of scared and anxious Corona-nazis encouraged to report our neighbours, or sullen Corona-renegades who want to get the economy moving again and get on with living our lives.

We need Government to be realistic about the Virus.  I am seriously wondering if Johnson is up to it. Let’s acknowledge some truths.

The UK has some great statistics on death rates – they are very informative: improved heart-disease treatments have reduced heart-attack deaths since 2000, but that fall has been matched by a rise in deaths from Dementia and Alzheimers. These numbers remind us – death is inevitable. The bulk of Covid deaths have been the elderly and infirm. That’s tragic but the reality is that death comes sooner if you are elderly and have other serious conditions.  Covid is an opportunistic predator – it picks the easy targets, the weak and vulnerable just ahead of other conditions.

In younger people the leading cause of death in young men is suicide – 1233 in 2018 compared to only 353 women. That is going to be a key number to watch in coming months. Overall, for all age groups influenza and pneumonia is the leading cause of death (except in Scotland!)

90 people under the age of 30 have died of Covid in the UK. That compares to 434 folk under 30 who died in road traffic accidents. I don’t know how many of these young Covid victims had other underlying conditions.

What we do know for certain is Covid is bad. If you are overweight its likely to be worse. It can take months to recover from the long-term cardio-vascular, gastric, neurological and respiration issues it raises in some patients. Yet the brutal reality remains it is more likely to kill you if you are elderly and have co-morbidities.

Covid is a risk. It’s a virus – like Chickenpox, Measles, Flue, Aids and Herpes. We treat them, cope with them and factor the risk of Shingles or catching Aids into our social decisions. I’m writing this with a painful cold sore on my lip from sailing – risk/reward.  There isn’t much we can do to avoid the flue – except quarantine or accept it. We don’t ban people for using private transport because they are 4 times more likely to die that Covid. We acknowledge it’s a risk, a choice and accept the economic and social consequences of 434 young people dying tragic unfulfilled lives

Governments need to be realistic about the Virus and make the risk calculations to inform some tough decisions. Be clear about it. There will be more deaths – but acknowledge they are going to happen. Balance theses against the economic and mental damage being done to the economy. We need to press the resilience button. Now.

It may be too late. Part of the the nation is so scared and traumatised its staying at home.

I am not a herd-immunity or vaccine expert – but it seems pretty clear the reason the numbers are rising are because more people are being tested. That hints the virus is becoming more widespread – but until we all get antibody tests we just don’t know about the health of the herd. But fewer people are dying. The death rate is falling because treatment is better, and more of the people being tested aren’t as susceptible to getting it bad and don’t need hospitalisation. The infections and death rate numbers are increasing in less developed economies less able to cope and still at early stage.

Deaths are well below the forecast levels we were hearing back in March.  If we get to 10,000 new cases per day in the UK, but death rates remain low then isn’t it time to reassess the risks?  Is it right to close a city because 21 people in 100,000 get it and very few are dying? Would it be better to close the factory that has ignored social distancing and thus allowed the virus to spread like wildfire round workers? You can find the official UK numbers here. Infections are heading back to where they were months ago. Death rates are a fraction of what they were.

And is it right to be wondering if we have herd immunity or pinning our hopes on a vaccine? Probably not. The virus is bad. It kills. But we need to get on and face it. Life is a risk.

Meanwhile… back in la-la-land

The Nikola story is a gas. They filmed a truck but never specifically said it wasn’t actually powering itself. You can’t make it up. But what’s even funnier is its apparently pushed Tesla higher? On the basis there might be far less to Nikola than we were told does that makes Tesla more valuable? If Tesla is vulnerable to competiton, then if you are watching Nikola you are watching the wrong thing.

Five Things to Read This Morning

WSJ – The Widely Popular Trades Behind the Market’s Swoon and Surge

WSJ – Kodak Deal Draws Review From Watchdog At Agency Involved In Planned Loan

FT – UK Labour Market Sheds 700,000 Jobs between March and August

FT – Pandemic debt binge creates new generation of zombie companies

BBerg – At JPMorgan, Productivity Falls for Staff Working at Home

Out of time and back to the day job

Bill Blain

Shard Capital