- March 23, 2020
This weekend was the first weekend of spring. After a long dreary winter filled with rainy days, floods, and moaning winds, the population came out in force to enjoy the sunny weather. At Skegness, hundreds of thousands flocked to the caravan parks and arcades on Saturday. In Victoria and Richmond parks, cyclists, walkers and other sportif types played golf, cricket, or hung out together in small and large groups. At Columbia Road tight crowds drifted past rows of spring flowers. At my former home town in Matlock, bikers poured into the fish and shops along the promenade at Matlock Bath, as they usually do whenever the weather allows.
All this would be just fine in any normal year, but as everyone knows, there is nothing normal about 2020, and there is something distinctly abnormal about responding to a national public health emergency by doing exactly the opposite of what virtually every expert and your own government is asking you to do.
You could attribute this spring festival/Bank Holiday effervescence to some kind of British stiff upper lip, except that it came only days after the Prime Minister urged the population to avoid congregating in large groups, to maintain social-distancing, and urged pubs, restaurants and other public buildings to close ‘as soon as you reasonably can.’
Urged is the key word here. Johnson has so far not ordered anyone to do anything, and there is almost no enforcement to ensure that the public does what he wants it to do. Instead he has preferred to dispense sage scientific advice. Now hundreds of thousands of people have cheerily ignored it, urged on by the likes of Tim Martin, Peter Hitchens, and many other pundits who just know that the coronavirus is all a big fuss about nothing?
There were also those who saw the weekend as an opportunity for some last-minute hoarding. We’ve often heard these last few years, in debates about refugees, foreign aid, or membership of the European Union, that we should ‘put our own people first’. This weekend many people did just that, admittedly by narrowing down the definition of ‘our people’ to mean themselves and their families.
Thousands flocked to the supermarkets to buy much more than they needed, forming large queues regardless of whether they infected each other or the shop assistants. Some ignored quotas imposed by supermarkets on how many items they could buy, carrying out multiple trips to the same car or bullying checkout assistants. At the more extreme fringes, selfishness expressed itself as social pathology.
Last week the Royal College of Nursing warned that community nurses in uniform were being spat at in the street by people calling them ‘ disease-spreaders’. Yesterday the Kent Ambulance Service reported that six of its ambulances had had holes drilled into their tyres, so that the vehicles could not be used.
Of course a country cannot be defined by the more sinister actions of its more vicious fringes. We know that people have spent the last few weeks forming self-help and mutual aid groups. They have been out collecting food for food banks, and looking for ways to help their neighbors and prepare for whatever may be coming.
Already, NHS staff have shown the heroism and humanity that we have come to expect from them, and which is too rarely recognised.
That said, the stunning indifference shown this weekend by so many people to their own safety or the safety of others did not come from nowhere. For years, millions of people voted for Tory governments in the knowledge that these governments were ruthlessly victimising some of the most vulnerable people in society, stripping away the safety net that protected them, or mercilessly exposing migrants and refugees to a ‘hostile environment’ that made it impossible for them to participate in society.
These people were ‘scroungers’ or ‘illegals’ who were a ‘burden on the taxpayer’, whose fate was of no interest to the politicians who targeted them or the voters who brought these politicians to power. Then there is Brexit. In 2016, millions of people voted to leave the European Union regardless of the social and economic impact it would have on EU nationals living in this country, or their own citizens abroad, or even on the country as a whole.
Egged on by some of the most dishonest and manipulative politicians on the continent, many of them have spent the last four years taunting at their fellow-citizens ‘you lost, get over it’ while simultaneously holding up two fingers to their former allies and neighbors.
So this is mean-spirited, fanatical, and selfish politics, and it is no surprise at all to find that many of its leading representatives think the coronavirus emergency is manufactured, and oppose any attempts to introduce restrictive measures against, or that so many of those who once talked about protecting ‘our people’ seem to have no interest in protecting them at all.
All this is fairly depressing and contemptible, but the events of this weekend are not simply a consequence of some kind of collective moral collapse or a failure to take individual responsibility. They are more than anything else a failure of leadership, from a government that has dithered and hesitated throughout the crisis.
Yesterday Johnson warned the public that the government might ” need to think about the kind of measures we’ve seen elsewhere – other countries that have been forced to bring in restrictions on people’s movements altogether, now as I say I don’t want to do that.”
This is like an indulgent parent telling a badly-behaved toddler ‘if you don’t stop that I’m going to put you on the naughty step.’ As a response to a public health emergency, it is terrifyingly inadequate. Where are the leaflets telling people what they have to do? Where are the social media videos, which the government produced endlessly during the election campaign? Where the public service announcements on tv and radio? Where are the orders?
Yesterday, Tim Shipman in the Sunday Times gave some insight into what has been going on inside the government these last few weeks, in an article (paywalled) that traced the evolution of government policy from a ‘herd-immunity’ strategy’ to the lockdown policy that we supposedly have, which contained the following much-quoted revelation:
Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s senior aide, became convinced that Britain would be better able to resist a lethal second wave of the disease next winter if Whitty’s prediction that 60% to 80% of the population became infected was right and the UK developed “herd immunity”.
At a private engagement at the end of February, Cummings outlined the government’s strategy. Those present say it was “herd immunity, protect the economy and if that means some pensioners die, too bad”.
According to the article, this position changed during a meeting on March 12, during a meeting with the government’s scientific advisers to consider Imperial College’s new predictions that 250,000 people would die if the herd-immunity strategy was continued. These figures had such a dramatic impact that the next day, Cummings shifted from herd-immunity to ‘ ‘let’s shut down the country and the economy.’
The article does not explain why the government ignored criticisms of the herd-immunity strategy beforehand, some of which included even higher predictions. Even now, government ministers, including Matt Hancock deny that herd immunity ever was the strategy, though the government’s own chief scientific adviser previously claimed that it was.
No government can respond perfectly to an emergency on this scale. There is no perfect response. But there is best practice – which the government ignored, regarding mass testing, lockdowns, the importance of clear messaging, civil mobilisation, from other countries.
Johnson and Cummings come from a tradition that is based on nationalist demagoguery, manipulation, bluffing and lying. Johnson’s instincts are Tory libertarian. As a journalist and a politician he has consistently played to the too-much-red-tape ‘nanny state’ crowd that has already inflicted so much damage on our public services.
Now we face an emergency that requires the state to take decisive and radical action to protect the population. Some of what it has done has been done well – however belatedly – such as Sunak’s emergency budget. But too much has been done badly – and too late.
So behind the ‘Domoscene conversion’ described in yesterday’s Times, it’s difficult to avoid the impression of a government still spinning its botched response to the emergency, and still reluctant to do what is required. Even as Johnson issued his advice on social-distancing, going to pubs, and avoiding crowds on Friday, he seemed to be struggling against his own libertarian instincts.
And now the weekend has revealed that we have gone into a lockdown-lite that is not a lockdown at all: a voluntary lockdown in which you can participate – or not. As a result hundreds of thousands of simply ignored what the government was telling them, and behaved in ways that are likely to spread the pandemic still further.
In the weeks and months to come, we may pay a terrible price for this insouciance, and for a government that preferred to ‘nudge’ people into doing the right thing, when it should have told them weeks ago what they had to do.