Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results is often attributed to Albert Einstein – perhaps in error with Mark Twain, Benjamin Franklin and a Chinese proverb also in the running but the message is more important than its provenance. So now we have it, deja vu.
But it’s not. We’ve entered our second lockdown but with a difference – I’d call it a half and half variant. Back in the spring Covid was a new entity but had already demonstrated its potency to cause serious illness and mortality especially, but not entirely, in the elderly and vulnerable. Across North and South, old and young, political red blue and yellow, England and the devolved nations we were as one that a lockdown was the only way. The only dispute was over why it took so long. It was a novelty welcomed by many, less traffic on the roads, time to enjoy nature as spring evolved into summer and the community pulled together like never before (or at least since Margaret Thatcher announced that there is no such thing as society). Yes there was a hit to employment and income but it’ll be over quickly, we can use some savings and Rishi, that conflation of Superman and Robin Hood, saves the day with his furlough scheme.
Much has been made of the ongoing policy making being a balance between health and economy. In fact neither has been the hard and fast line and as a consequence both are catastrophic – we have the highest rate of excess deaths in Europe and the worst hit to economic growth. To my mind the priority has to be health and minimising the much reported R number and for two reasons. Pragmatically whilst the virus pervades society there will be an insidious impact on business and the economy and the latter can only truly flourish when viral numbers are much lower than those reached even at the best of times in the summer. We can’t simply kick the can up the road as the silver bullet of the vaccine waits in the wings despite the very positive announcement yesterday. With further hoops to jump through who knows when and what guarantee of sustained effectiveness? No, it is by continuing strict precautionary measures that we will minimise the virus in the short to medium term. The first lockdown was very effective, perhaps catalysed by the summer months, but the pendulum swung too quickly towards the economy with Eat Out to Help Out which I thought was short sighted at the time, get back to the office and have a holiday (including selected overseas destinations) leading us to believe the virus was defeated and here were the first green shoots of a return to so-called normality. But Covid showed the qualities of a phoenix rising with a vengeance from the ashes and although it would be too simplistic to blame the relaxation as the sole cause it must have proved a very effective kindling agent. My second case for the health priority is that this virus is literally a killer – the economy was devastated after the war but recovered and hopefully the same will happen again but lives lost are irreversible. The sanctity of life is paramount.
I accept that these are very difficult decisions for the Government with no historical lodestar. But I’d throw a third factor into the mix. Boris Johnson thrives on bluster – his inclination despite his desire to mirror Winston is to send out positive vibes and to err towards offering policies to please the public rather than a hard line that may be what is needed. The initiatives alluded to above along with statements such as a promise of a near normal Christmas foment a Micawberish overoptimism further releasing the shackles in many peoples’ minds. Covid v Boris – there can only be one winner. Initially BJ was as reluctant as Trump to concede but it was inevitable that the second lockdown was only a matter of time ……And what about another Government mantra “We follow the science”. SAGE advised a lockdown in late September only to be kicked into touch ….if only ministers had kept to their word. The Cabinet nodding dogs understandably follow the party line but, I wonder, where do Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance stand? Having heard them speak in the last week or two along with sixteen confusing slides in twelve minutes it was very much a support for the Government decisions. But are they being disingenuous and as Chief Medical and Scientific Officer respectively shouldn’t their role be to support the independent scientists unless they genuinely deemed them wrong (which I doubt)? They are surely there as advisers and not to simply add assumed credibility as Government mouthpieces.There’s a final piece of very potent evidence supporting the lockdown – Nigel Farage is launching an anti-lockdown party. So here’s a question I never thought I’d raise – where’s Mrs Thatcher when you need her? She’d have determined the best policy for the country and stuck to it (The lady’s not for turning) whereas Boris & Co have more U-bends than the Pimlico plumber.
Despite the Government’s relaxation of restrictions I have continued a strict adherence to very limited social contact – the equation of risk has remained in my mind as weighted towards avoiding a potentially fatal virus which has never gone away. But eight months on it feels very different and is getting harder. Even in winter a garden and a bicycle can provide a safety valve and how I feel for those with young children in high rise blocks. At least the schools and universities are staying active but that begs a question of undermining the effectiveness of the lockdown and hence my labeling it half and half. Students were seen as arguably the most significant viral vectors and the Government’s argument that children are almost never seriously affected is banal – children and adults are always going to mingle and are to Covid the equivalent of the mosquito to malaria. Yes, I know malaria is transmitted by protozoa not viruses but the principle of carrying an infection is the same! Call me glass half empty but I’m not convinced a month of the current strategy is going to have a major beneficial impact.
Despite the reservations, yesterday’s announcement offers a desperately needed glint of light at the end of a still very dark tunnel. Let’s just pray that the flickering flame of hope gets fanned as effectively as Boris’ optimism.