THE fierce and at times ill-tempered debate in recent weeks over the extent to which various sectors of the economy should be open amid the coronavirus crisis seems to contrast starkly with a pulling together at the start of this awful pandemic.

It is, of course, easy to understand why tempers are becoming frayed and patience is wearing thin.

Unemployment has surged. People are struggling financially. There has rightly been a focus on mental health effects of lockdowns. Businesses, particularly those in consumer-facing sectors, have faced huge challenges over so many months now.

However, the coronavirus infection rates are truly frightening, and hospitalisation and death numbers grim.

To save lives, drastic measures are needed. There is no doubt about that.

It is understandable that there is debate around the specific nature of these measures, in terms of what is allowed and what is not. However, the arguments seem to have developed in a way which signals a widespread belief that this boils down to a choice between suppressing the virus or keeping the economy going. This is a dangerous line of thinking, and in any case represents a misunderstanding of the situation.

Surely saving many, many thousands of lives is something that must be done. It is not a matter of choice.

And many people seem to miss the point that the greater the success in suppressing the virus, the better it will be for the economy in the medium and long run. Taiwan is a fine example of a nation which was immediately alert to the dangers of Covid-19 and took swift and joined-up action to tackle it. The economy of this east Asian island democracy has turned in a solid performance.

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Taiwan obviously had the experience of dealing with the SARS outbreak in 2003, and this time around had the advantage of early knowledge of what was happening in Wuhan, as well as absolute clarity that this was an immediate risk to its citizens in terms of its geography and transport links with the People’s Republic of China.

HeraldScotland: Taiwan Picture: Ian McConnellTaiwan Picture: Ian McConnellHowever, it is a fine example that shows suppressing the virus and having a prosperous economy can go hand-in-hand. The two things are certainly not, as you might think from some of the more extreme debate over what is happening in the UK, mutually exclusive.

Taiwan also deserves great credit for its swift flagging of concerns about what was happening in Wuhan to the World Health Organization. There has been debate over whether the WHO could have acted more swiftly on the information to help stem the global spread of the virus.

In the UK, a new strain of Covid-19 coronavirus has made things much more difficult in recent weeks.

However, the emergence of a second wave of Covid-19 was evident in mainland European countries back in early August.

Unfortunately, the UK Government has been caught on the hop time and again amid this crisis.

Boris Johnson was in late August declaring that it was time for people to be heading back into offices.

At that time, Chancellor Rishi Sunak, having spent some of the summer promoting his Eat Out to Help Out scheme, was insisting the UK Government’s furlough scheme would not be extended under any circumstances.

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Of course, Mr Johnson is now rightly hammering home the severity of the public health crisis again and emphasising what must be done to save lives. It is crucial he does this. And he must do so clearly and consistently because the mixed messages that we have seen from the UK Government through this crisis have been utterly lamentable and damaging.

In stark contrast, the message from the Scottish Government has been consistent throughout. It has been rightly cautious. This steady and cautious approach from First Minister Nicola Sturgeon seems to have aggravated some people but it is difficult to see why.

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There are signs of increased tension between the business community and the Scottish Government. Some of this has probably been unavoidable. There has, after all, been a need to make decisions swiftly in the face of changing circumstances. Some of the difficulties in this relationship could, however, perhaps be tackled with better communication. It is crucial that businesses do not form the impression, rightly or wrongly, that they are perceived as not caring about the public health crisis. The vast bulk take it very seriously indeed and, in the likes of the hospitality and airline sectors, there has been very heavy investment in safety measures.

HeraldScotland: Nicola Sturgeon Picture: Gordon TerrisNicola Sturgeon Picture: Gordon Terris

However, at the end of the day, what is essential for businesses required to close or limit operations amid the pandemic is adequate financial support. While it is crucial that the likes of grant funding from the Scottish Government gets where it needs to be and fast, there have been huge issues during this pandemic with the Johnson administration’s dragging of its heels on providing UK taxpayer money to fund the support required. This has seemed to reflect a very significant lack of awareness of the needs of businesses, many of which are striving to retain employees.

The biggest example of this was the protracted and repeated refusal – eventually reversed as the second wave prompted renewed lockdowns – to extend the coronavirus job retention scheme through which the UK taxpayer supports the incomes of furloughed workers. Not only did this cause huge uncertainty for businesses and their employees and lead to avoidable job losses but it also tied the Scottish Government’s hands to a significant degree when it came to making the big decisions that are so crucial from a public health perspective.

The UK Government’s short-term thinking contrasted with the two-year views taken by France and Germany from the outset.

It was intensely frustrating to hear some advocates of a full and swift reopening of the economy talk through the autumn about how infection numbers were higher but hospitalisations and deaths were relatively small in number.

The sad fact of the matter is that the second wave was well under way by then, and this should have been evident to those who believed the crisis had somehow gone away or diminished to such an extent that restrictions were way overdone.

This is about as grim a start to a new year as you could have imagined before the onset of the crisis, as the human tragedy that is the coronavirus pandemic continues to take a heavy toll.

However, it is crucial to look forward, and consider what needs to be done to get us through this.

And it would also be worth bearing in mind, amid what often seems like a lack of hope, that things would be so much worse without the various vaccine successes we have had. These successes show us a way out of this terrible mess.

In the meantime, what we need to see is the long-term and joined-up thinking that has been lacking from the UK Government in terms of financial support.

The light at the end of the tunnel should make it an easy choice to put up the big amounts of funding required to keep businesses going and crucially to save jobs and prevent a dismal unemployment picture becoming even worse.

We then need to see this funding deployed by devolved administrations and local authorities as quickly as possible to where it is needed. The success of their efforts in this regard will, of course, be dependent on adequate levels of provision in the first place from the UK Government.

It would also be good, from both a public health and ultimately an economic perspective, to see a more harmonious approach from the population at large to tackling the spread of the virus, like that seen in the spring.

Of course, people’s growing impatience is easy to understand in these difficult and uncertain times in which so many households and businesses are under huge financial pressure.

And it is up to government to provide the support needed to enable people to play their part in the effort to save huge numbers of lives in the difficult months ahead, as the roll-out of the vaccine occurs.

In a UK context, it is the Johnson administration which has the big tax-raising powers. Mr Johnson does not seem sure whether it will be the end of the daffodil or tulip season by which time things might be more normal. Millions of people in the UK who are under so much pressure will probably be less focused on flowering seasons than the Prime Minister.

What is crystal clear, however, is that adequate emergency funding for businesses and households will be for the long-term good of the economy and society, in terms of keeping businesses afloat and preserving jobs until we see a return to normality.

The UK Government response has been so sadly lacking on this front, and its mixed messages have not helped.

Messrs Johnson and Sunak must put these shortcomings right in the crucial months ahead.