As Covid-19 cases rise through the 24,000 per day mark and the seven day average for daily deaths reach the 400s, it has at last dawned on the British public that its government has no coherent plan for dealing with the pandemic. A YouGov poll shows that only one in six of the population thinks that they do.
Only a third believe that the Government has made the right decisions in tackling Covid-19 – an impression likely to be strengthened by the recent decision to impose a total English lockdown this week, despite the Prime Minister’s rejection of precisely that a few days previously. That said, even fewer people feel that Labour would do a better job. Popular disenchantment appears to engulf the political class and their supposedly ‘sage’ scientific advisors as a whole, rather than dividing along the traditional left-right spectrum.
The chasm which the epidemic has revealed in Britain is much deeper and more fundamental: it is that between the libertarian and the statist; big and small government; between regulator and free marketeer; between those, like Lyndon Johnson and his Great Society, who believe that ‘freedom is not enough’ and others who believe that the only good government is a bad one in a hell of a fright.
It has pitched the ‘safetyist’, #MeToo, No Platform culture – the modern day Puritans – against the freedom-loving, common-sensical and bloody-minded individualism of today’s Cavaliers. The sensitivity of the latter to the loss of their freedoms, on a scale unprecedented even in wartime, has been heightened by the Prime Minister’s faux Churchillian calls to unity, and by Matt Hancock’s schoolboyish determination to prove that he can take ‘the tough decisions’.
Still more Britons increasingly suspect that the Government’s ‘We’re all in this together’ evocation of the Dunkirk spirit – allied to calls to ‘follow the science’ – is an expedient way of cowing the British population whilst denying them the opportunity to earn their living. Moreover, it enables the Government to impose a top-down strategy for combating the virus (principally through poorly-targeted lockdowns), rather than the more subtle method of enlisting and building upon the cooperation of the British people.
Frankly, to say that ‘we’re all in this together’ is simply not true. The effects of Covid-19, and of the kind of measures taken to deal with it, are uneven and unpredictable. Thus, the average age at which people die from the virus is over 82. On the other hand, if you’re under 30 and get it, you probably won’t even realise you have. If you are healthy, slim and take regular exercise – relax. But if you have underlying health problems and are obese – watch out. If you live in overcrowded housing with a large extended family, you’re at a much greater risk of infection than if you are lucky enough to live in the sylvan shires, often in a second home.
What is more, it’s not those ‘irresponsible young people’ partying in tightly-packed bars and restaurants who should be the subject of stricture. For the past 30 years these same young people have seen house prices pushed constantly beyond their reach, their retirement prospects evaporate, their environment polluted – and they are now expected to bear the brunt of the epidemic in lost jobs and forfeited education. I’m surprised and humbled that their being implicitly blamed for the recent upsurge in infection has not led to the kind of street unrest we saw in Paris in 1968.
So what does the Government’s ‘strategy’ boil down to? In the absence of a vaccine – and we shouldn’t forget our failure to discover even one new antibiotic for more than a quarter of a century – it certainly appears to be just to keep people away from each other… and to wash your hands. Social distancing, mask wearing, no mass gatherings (church or football), the ‘Rule of Six’ and local and national lockdowns are all variations on this ineffective and short-term theme.
Temporarily it might work, as the fall in infections from April to September demonstrated; but the true test of political leadership is to identify the right balance between the short and the longer term. The recent resurgence in cases to levels four times the previous peak has shown us that this strategy has produced no cure. What it has done is to limit immunity, prolong the epidemic and, by doing so, to cripple the livelihoods, general health and future of millions. This year the UK economy had by late September shrunk by almost 10 percent.
In anything other than the short term, just keeping people away from each other doesn’t work and hampers the ability of society to heal itself. Better to ride out the storm and accept, as we did variously in the 1920s, the 1960s and the 1980s, that there will inevitably be casualties – as there are in wartime – if society is to protect itself and its longer term prosperity and stability.
Of course the vulnerable, elderly and infirm should be strictly isolated; face masks and social distancing might be a temporary, respectful and short-term way of showing neighbourliness. Those responsible for blatant and egregious examples of infectious behaviour in crowds, places of entertainment and so on should first be warned and then given their marching orders.
But otherwise, no more quarantines, lockdowns, Rules of Six or Eight or the constant imposition of restrictions and tiers upon the British people. To return to Churchill, it was he who said that ‘it is sometimes better to be irresponsible and right, than responsible and wrong’. We should instead rely on those most British of attributes – common sense, courtesy and decency – and get back to living again.