from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Hibernation

hibernating dormice

June 24.  Hibernation.  Tuesday’s public announcements, reinforced in my case by a personal letter from the NHS, have merely highlighted the collapse of trust in governing bodies in the UK.

According to Boris Johnson, the era of hibernation is over in England.  Pubs and hairdressers will open, the two-metre rule is halved.  The ‘shielded’ will be allowed to visit family from July 6, and permitted to roam freely from the beginning of August.

In better times, a public statement by the Prime Minister in Parliament, reinforced by a press conference attended by both the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Officer, plus an official three-page letter, should be enough.  Who am I, a toiling historian, entirely innocent of a medical education, to dispute these authoritative statements?

But before I will move an inch from my current uneventful but secure lockdown I will consult every newspaper I can find, sundry blogs to which I subscribe, my neighbours, my friends (particularly two who actually are scientists), my younger brother who is playing a major regional role co-ordinating trace and test regimes and sits on the board of two hospital trusts, my grown-up children (especially), my lawyer, my astrologer, anyone who might be able to triangulate the official message.  Then I will discuss the matter with my similarly sceptical wife, and between the two of us I expect we will decide to change nothing in our daily ritual until the consequence of the relaxation becomes evident in the infection rates (see Add Mss below).

This is tiring.  A healthy democracy requires a questioning electorate, but only so far.  If we are to get on with the business of our lives, we have to invest confidence in those to whom we delegate fundamental decision-making powers.  The education we have received since the beginning of the year tells us that the administrative competence of ministers appointed not for their abilities but for their position on Brexit is low, that the government machine which should support them is not firing on all cylinders (no controlling ‘deep state’ here, anymore than there is in the USA), that the Prime Minister is careless of detail and the truth, and that the scientists and medical specialists argue with each other, including about the current topic of the safe rate to relax restrictions. 

And if we are to get on with the business of our lives, we have to walk down a street or enter a public building without viewing every stranger as a potential threat to our health and wellbeing.  Amongst the many inherent contradictions in the new policy is allowing alcohol to be consumed in a ‘mitigated’ form.  Someone somewhere has forgotten that the point of drinking is that is a means of throwing off the mitigations of the daily round.  It promotes personal interaction, reduces inhibitions, and in extreme, but far from uncommon, cases leads to profoundly anti-social behaviour (there is a reason why the business of Accident and Emergency Departments has sharply declined in the pandemic lockdown).  

In the end the calculation of risk will be largely personal.  In two months we expect the arrival of a new grand-daughter a hundred-and-fifty miles away in London.  It is likely to be that event, not further iterations of official advice and guidance, that will cause us to emerge from the burrow in which we have been sleeping.

Add Mss 3.  June 10 Staying Alive: “When the final calculations are made, it is likely that those dying alone because they are alone will be far exceeded by those dying in company because they are in company.In Australia a lifting of the lockdown has been suspended in large parts of Melbourne because of a resurgence of infections blamed on family gatherings and birthday parties.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Free and not free

June 11.   In the lockdown, I have tried to be sensible.  I have maintained my hours of work despite the absence of timetabled commitments.  I have written diary entries.  I have resisted drinking all of our not very capacious wine cellar.  My one besetting sin has been newspapers.  Deprived of hard copy I have set up online feeds from the Guardian, The Times (for an alternative view), the Financial Times (for hard evidence) and the New York Times (for the rest of the world).  Unlimited words, limitless time consumed.

Much of the knowledge thus gained has not illuminated my life.  Today I learn that there is a looming shortage of marmite (caused by a decline in beer brewing, who knew), and mounting anxiety about the closure of public lavatories.

Occasionally, however, there is a story that seems to encapsulate all that is now going wrong.  Yesterday’s online Times has an article headlined: ‘Lockdown eased to allow lonely to meet another household.’  It was part of the good news narrative that Johnson is trying to promote.  Day by day things are getting better.   In every other regard it brings no comfort.

First there is the nominative disarray I discussed yesterday; the confusion in this case between those living alone, and those who are lonely.  A third of UK households are occupied by one person.  Some of those are lonely; most are not.  All of them with grandchildren are probably missing them.

Second there is the small print.  Everyone can go and see their grandchildren except those in lockdown, which includes all those over seventy.  My wife and I, as it happens, are bang on the demographic average for the birth of our first grandchild (we were 63).  But now we have more years and more grandchildren.   Under the new regulations, we are too old to see them.  It’s as if the Government had announced with a fanfare that everyone was now free to play football, except those under thirty.

Third there is the surrounding argument.  The fifth paragraph of the same article reads:  ‘However, the government’s claim to have made the right decisions at the right time on the pandemic was dealt a severe blow when one of the architects of lockdown said Britain’s death toll could have been halved by imposing it a week earlier.’  What has collapsed in the last few weeks is not the infection rate but public trust in the entire official management of the crisis.

Every recent decision, whether about schools, testing, opening shops, allowing grandparents out of the house, quarantining international arrivals, has immediately been met by criticism, counter-argument and in some cases legal action.  The point is not so much the rights and Priti Patels of each issue, rather the belief that everyone is free to advance their own view and can find an ‘expert’ somewhere to back them up.  Deference towards politicians, and towards those who advise them, has disappeared.  In the early days there was a tendency to accept what we were told in the grave surroundings of No. 10.  We needed to believe that those with power were doing the right thing, and anyway it was difficult for amateurs fully to understand the science and the projections.  That comfort is no longer available.

The largest argument, referred to by the Times journalist, is about what was not done in February and March and how many tens of thousands of people died as a result.  The Government’s repeated hope that this kind of retrospective analysis could be left to a post-pandemic enquiry is in vain. 

We are all historians now.  And that is a measure of the trouble we are in.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: unshielding

June 1.So, a new month, the beginning of meteorological Summer, and the un-lockdown begins. 

There is a special concession for the ‘shielded’, who, like me, have not been out of their house and garden since the last week of March (except for a medical check-up).  My thanks to David Maughan Brown for pointing out the irritating misuse of the verb ‘shield.’  On the other hand, ‘extremely vulnerable’ would appear to be a phrase with meaning.  Now we appear to be slightly less so.

The advice on the government website, updated yesterday, is as follows:

“People who are shielding remain vulnerable and should continue to take precautions but can now leave their home if they wish, as long as they are able to maintain strict social distancing. If you choose to spend time outdoors, this can be with members of your own household. If you live alone, you can spend time outdoors with one person from another household. Ideally, this should be the same person each time. If you do go out, you should take extra care to minimise contact with others by keeping 2 metres apart. This guidance will be kept under regular review.”

This is of course just for England.  Over the border, shielded or not, I can still be arrested if I drive more than five miles into Wales.  The change is scarcely a revolution, but it has raised two profound concerns. 

The first, which has been immanent throughout the crisis, is that the category of ‘extremely vulnerable’ covers a whole host of conditions. It places in the same situation those with only a marginal extra risk and those who should not be out of their home under any circumstances – coronavirus scarcely the only threat to those whose immune system is completely shot.  Without detailed medical advice, which is generally not available (as I know myself), it is next to impossible to make the judgment call about going out of doors.

The second is that the change, and the broader relaxation for the unshielded, is driven more by political convenience or economic urgency than by medical reality.  The ‘R’ rate is still perilously close to 1, and the improvements in the infection rate are at best patchy across England.  No one was convinced when the Number 10 briefing came out with the tortured explanation that the country, whilst at level 4 of risk (where everyone should be in lockdown) is ‘transitioning’ towards level 3.  Further, whilst London may be getting safer, the rest of the country is not necessarily doing so.  Over the last ten days, the infection rate for Shropshire has increased from 233.2 to 253.2.  The scores have also risen from 275.6 to 301.8 in nearby Stoke-on-Trent, and from 267.0 to 288.2 in Manchester. 

As critics have pointed out, we need a much more nuanced approach to the vulnerable, and we need in place an effective track and trace system before we make any significant change to the lockdown.  This was argued in an excellent article on Saturday by Devi Sridhar, chair of global public health at Edinburgh University, and her colleague Yasmin Rafiei:

“What we suggest instead is a general strategy of suppression, where governments make a commitment to keeping daily new cases as low as possible through an active testing-and-tracing programme and real-time monitoring of transmission. At the same time, the government should advise those in “shielded groups” about their individual risk, as well as provide them with data about transmission within their communities, and then leave these individuals to make an informed decision about how and when they would like to engage in society.”

Just so.

In the meantime, the changes are bringing some joy.

My five-year-old grandson was so pleased about the prospect of going back to school (four days a week from this Thursday) that during the hour-long family Zoom meeting on Sunday he insisted on wearing his school uniform throughout.

And I have a Finnish friend who tells me that in her country the relaxation of the two-metre rule has been welcomed, as it enables people to go back to their natural distancing of five metres.

from Steph in London: turning point week

May 31. Capacity over strategy, instinct over compliance, self righteousness and the divine right of kings over competence … all in all a turning point week. Tempers are strained and it’s not the lockdown that is causing the frustration. It’s as if dear Boris and his henchmen are bored now- we are distinguished in having almost the worst figures in the world, nothing is working smoothly, the R number remains steady at too high and now a few more deaths won’t really matter … 10 weeks of grasping at straws, over promising and under delivering tests even the most loyal in society.

Essentially nothing has changed but we are being released albeit slowly (but are the over 70s?)

So now we have to think about meeting the world again – well, up to 6 of them at least. From being a extrovert who loves being with people I feel anxious about being with anybody other than my nearest and dearest, even in the garden. So, Book Club could meet in a garden, as could our Ladies who Lunch group – do I want to? No thank you, not yet.

Happy birthday to my middle son, who turns 45 today. He lives in the Netherlands and heaven knows when I can next give him and the grandchildren a hug – and a present!

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Lockdown Fortnight.

26 May. All of us are looking towards the future, seeking to understand how we can draw lessons from the crisis and build upon them.

This is my modest proposal.

From 2021 there shall be a legally-defined annual Lockdown Fortnight.

The Lockdown Fortnight will fall in the last week of June and the first week of July.  During that period, with exceptions listed below, every household will be required to observe full lockdown.

The Lockdown Fortnight will have four functions:

  • It will serve as a memorial for the tens of thousands who lost their lives in the 2020 UK pandemic, and for the health workers who risked their lives in supporting the afflicted.  Clapping is not enough;
  • It will serve as an annual reminder that we need to be prepared for the recurrence of a global pandemic. Countries, such as South Korea, that had an active memory of the SARS epidemic, were much better prepared for Covid19 than those without such a memory.  During the lockdown the government will be required to make an annual statement of preparedness;
  • It will create a pollution-free interval to remind us of what we have lost and have a right to regain;
  • It will provide a planned break from the distractions of late modernity in order that individuals recollect themselves and the importance of their immediate social networks (and also do the necessary home repairs that otherwise are left undone across the year).

Because it will be planned and of a fixed duration, the disorder and stress of the current crisis can be largely avoided. Before the Lockdown Fortnight, supplies can be purchased, encounters with family and friends can take place, hairdressers can be visited.  Any other practical difficulties can be borne for only fourteen days.

During Lockdown Fortnight, the only permitted movement will be such as can be conducted on foot, or on a bicycle (powered or otherwise).  The only long-distance travel will be pilgrimages to the shrine of St Cummings the Martyr in Durham (and/or Barnard Castle).

The Lockdown Fortnight will be timed for the period of maximum daylight in Britain. It will incorporate the May Bank Holidays which will be moved forward for this purpose. The school summer half terms will be extended to two weeks and also be moved to this period.

The event is partly based on the Potters Fortnight, which was still functioning when I started work at Keele University.  This was a relic of an industrial holiday, when the potbanks were shut for maintenance, and when, before the 1956 Clean Air Act, it was the only time when you could see across the city.

Exemptions to the Lockdown Fortnight will be:

  • Health and related workers, though A and E business may again decline if the pubs are shut.
  • Hospitality workers serving overseas visitors, who will be welcome to bring their currency to Britain and spend it at otherwise un-crowded hotels and bars (on production of a passport).   This will represent a temporary but annual reminder of what we have lost with Brexit-inspired hostility to all foreigners. Britons travelling abroad will have to leave and return before and after the lockdown.
  • Home-working will be permitted although no household will be allowed more than 10 hours video conferencing a week (5 work, 5 social).  Wherever possible factories should arrange their annual maintenance for this period (see Potters Fortnight above). 
  • Sporting fixtures will be closed (the football season will be over), except Wimbledon on the grounds that it provides televised entertainment for those in lockdown.

The Lockdown Fortnight would be disruptive, but perhaps we have learnt this year that unbroken continuity of event and practice can oppose wisdom and self-knowledge. There may be a small net hit on the national GDP, but everything now is a balance between cost and benefit. See above for the gains.

The regulations will be rigorously policed by the Priti Patel Compassionate Enforcement Agency.

From John in Brighton: Two Baby-steps for Man

20 May. After seven weeks of “shielding” (a euphemism for imprisonment for the uninitiated) this last weekend represented a couple of baby-steps back towards normality for me. I’d better own up that I have dumped my shield numerous times – but only to cycle  ten miles along the seafront as I deemed the benefits to mental and physical health justified the miniscule risk. There was a positive feel – football was reappearing albeit German and with cardboard cutouts, Eurovision was all but cancelled (seriously good news) and the weather was set reasonably fair. But it was bumbling Boris’ baby-steps and a case of needs must that really did it for me.
First off meeting a couple of friends for coffee. Confession number two it was in the back garden not a public place but we’re not stupid and pursued social distancing so I feel not an inkling of guilt or worry. No hugging, not even a handshake. If it’s any consolation to BJ the nip in the air ensured that we stayed alert. After years of NHS guidelines and policies I conclude that those that work best are clear and concise with no grey zones and brief enough to be manageable, no one reads a series of fifty page documents. Two-thirds of the public find the government’s new rules unclear apparently. The lack of logic and confused messages from bulldog-spirited BJ and his cabinet of spaniels makes me think that we should use our common sense as our Pole Star rather than any parliamentary edict. Returning briefly to football I am reminded of a well known chant albeit less heard since VAR took the ultimate control “Yer don’t know what yer doin'”. Anyway bearing in mind that one difference between humans and primates is our better-developed language it was really good to have an hour and a half of conversation in vivo, a bit of culture to add to my already lengthy reading list and to share the machine-gun trill of a rather vocal wren. And in case you’re worried the boys in blue (is that a bit Sergeant Dixon era, should it be persons in blue?) were obviously too busy patrolling the beach to worry about any geriatric misbehaviour. 


Sunday’s baby-step was a case of needs must as the DIY click and collect system was unavailable. Not Wickes or B&Q but the arrangement whereby I click a list, daughter shops for it and we meet and I collect. Works a treat if you haven’t tried it and all for the price of a bar of chocolate and a few satsumas. But she was busy, so armed with my new-found liberation I opted for the elderly and vulnerable slot at Waitrose. A real life allegory unfolded in lieu of the deficiency of church sermons at present. Being my first visit in lock-down and because the queue bent invisibly round a corner I spent ten minutes oblivious to the formalities whilst hanging around the door. Come opening a woman bellowed at me that there was a queue – instead of just watching me couldn’t she have told me that before?

By this point it was half way across the car park, heart-sink…..But a kind lady with whom I used to natter  back in normal times agrees to let me in, the lady behind seconds the motion  and like a game of snakes and ladders I’ve shot up from 26th to 5th in the blink of an eye. My goal is to get round and out as fast as possible and the only potential hindrance is that “she who is aggrieved of queuing” is visibly surprised and put out to confront me – “how did you get in?” she asks clearly concerned that a grave injustice has come to pass.

What is the matter with some people? Doesn’t she realise she could be on a ventilator or using a food bank? But maybe she is stressed for some other reason and so I opt to stonewall rather than engage in messy discussion. Get to the checkout by 9.50 for a ten minute wait but I’m still only second in the queue. First is a young oriental lady and she turns and asks if I’d like to go first, almost insistent – presumably because I look suitably geriatric and vulnerable. Inculcated with the proprieties of queueing and so taken aback that anyone should make such a kind offer (unprecedented as per the current demotic) I decline despite her repeated offers. I’m out by ten past ten, no one sneezed or coughed on me and so hopefully all will be well. But the experience was valuable on two counts – got a few bits for sustenance and more importantly The Observer which was the primary purpose of the mission.  But an unanticipated spin-off was to experience the stark contrast of human nature between the angry and rude as opposed to the kind and considerate. It reminded me that the latter is the camp I need to be in. We’ve seen outpourings of community spirit during the loc-kdown and long may that live and on a small scale I hope to emerge a kinder person and for more than the seventy two hours or so that we reduce our driving speed after passing an accident.


It’s over fifty years since Neil Armstrong took his “small step for man” but with my two baby-steps I’m over the moon. I still have reservation that there could be a second wave of virus and will be very selective in any external activities but the tips are reopening in Brighton and the lure of clearing several crates of garden waste may be my next baby-step . Need to ensure that I stop it becoming a baby-toddle at this stage but if hairdressers get the kiss of life then the temptation may be too much.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: the divided golf course

May 14. A month ago, on April 14, I wrote a piece on ‘Borders’, describing the ‘insane’ prospect of different lockdown regulations on either side of national borders within the UK.

Now it has come to pass.  The picture above is the view from the bottom of my garden.  Below the field is the Severn, hidden by the trees on the bank.  Almost unnoticed in the current crisis, we have been enjoying a warm, dry Spring and the river is unusually low for this time of the year.  Beyond it, across a few more fields, is Wales, with the Breiddens in the distance.   Were I to go for a walk on the hills, as we often did in peacetime, I could now be stopped by the police.  It is legal to drive to take exercise in England, not in Wales.  It is permissible for people to go to any kind of work in England, not in Wales.  There is a golf course in the border village of Llanymynech, a few miles away, where 15 holes are in Wales, 3 in England.  According to the new rules, only the English holes can be played. 

Some of this is just a trivial irritation.  But there is a more serious event taking place.  The leaders of Scotland, Wales and even Northern Ireland, have publicly condemned Johnson’s broadcast on Sunday, where he announced a partial, if very confused, relaxation of the rules ‘in the UK’.  The nation leaders were quick to point out that they had not been consulted about the new regime and did not agree with it.  They were free to go their own way and intended to do so.  This is partly a matter of local calculation about the state of the pandemic and the risk of relaxing the lockdown.  It is also a consequence of the growing perception that the Westminster government is fundamentally incompetent.  The electorates of the other nations are looking to their own representatives for a road map out of the crisis, and practices are likely to diverge still further in the coming months.

The coronavirus pandemic did not invent the break-up of the UK, but amongst the consequences will be a significant acceleration of that process.  And Brexit is yet to come.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Common Sense

May 14th

Boris has defended his much ridiculed shiny new ‘Stay alert.  Control the virus. Save lives’ slogan by asserting that he is relying on people to use their common sense.  His increasingly tetchy Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, by contrast, has adopted the tactic of responding to anyone who asks what the slogan is supposed to mean by boldly asserting that everyone obviously knows what it means.  Given that the First Minister of Scotland has asserted that she has no idea what it means and will stick to the original easily understood ‘Stay at Home’ slogan, thanks very much, one can only conclude that the United Kingdom is not as quite as united as it says on the tin.

Common sense appears to be in short supply, so Boris is gambling once again.  One of the BBC correspondents gave us the “shocking news” recently that the sales of new cars had gone down by 97% in the UK in April.  Anyone one who is “shocked” when he discovers that car sales have gone down in a month when every motor showroom in the country has been closed should not be allowed near the air-waves.  The more interesting question was how, in those circumstances, even 3% of previous sales had been maintained.  The news that GDP fell by 2% in the first quarter when it was only the last ten days of the quarter that were affected by the lockdown has similarly led reporters to scurry around asking economists whether they think that means we might be heading into a recession.  The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, who is the only cabinet minister who gives the impression that he has any idea what he is doing (in spite of apparently being a Brexit supporter), must have had his tongue firmly in his cheek this morning when he said he thought it possible that those figures might suggest a recession could be on its way.

The government guidance on how to interpret the new slogan is not, in itself, a shining example of common sense.   We are allowed to play basketball in the park, but people can’t meet both their parents in a park simultaneously, even if they remain socially distanced.  The First Secretary of State had to be corrected when he said he thought common sense dictated that the latter would be OK, and one can only assume that nobody responsible for the guidance has ever watched anyone playing basketball. Similarly, I can drive 50 miles to take a walk in the Lake District but I can’t take a flask of tea and sit down for a chat, appropriately socially distanced, in a lonely friend’s garden.  Why?  Because I might have to go through the house to get to the garden, and it isn’t permissible to meet people in their houses.  My daughter, who I know has been rigorously socially distancing, can’t come to my house, but any estate agent, who might for all I know be stupid enough to shake the hands of Covid-19 patients, can.   One can only conclude that common sense isn’t so common after all.  If you are looking for some from a government, try New Zealand or Scotland.

from David Vicent in Shrewsbury, UK: Unlocking

May 5, 2020. 

We are now into the beginning of the unlocking of Britain.  The prospect is raising the question of where the power lies in this crisis.

The Guardian reported at the weekend that ‘Fewer than one in five of the British public believe the time is right to consider reopening schools, restaurants, pubs and stadiums. The findings, in a new poll for the Observer, suggest Boris Johnson will struggle to convince people to return their lives to normal if he tries to ease the lockdown soon..’

You can be certain that Johnson and his advisers took this information very seriously.  It is a truism long known to politicians and political historians, that successful social reform follows rather than changes public opinion.  This was the case for instance with Roy Jenkins’ epochal tenure of the Home Office in the mid-1960s when he radically reformed the law on homosexuality, abortion, race relations and censorship.  In each case popular sentiment was more than ready for such changes.  The same is true, more recently, of the liberalising reforms in the Republic of Ireland.

It is not just a matter of a government avoiding grief in polls and subsequent elections.  If a society is not, with the exception of inevitable die-hards, largely in favour of reform, it will not observe the new legal framework, and no amount of punitive policing or judicial intervention will be effective.

In the speeded-up metabolism of successive social changes in the coronavirus pandemic, the same rules apply.  Johnson held back from imposing the lockdown until it was evident that the population would accept what a month previously had been unimaginable changes to its behaviour.  For all the protests by Conservative backbenchers, the occasional arrests on beaches or in other public spaces have been largely symbolic. 

The question is how far has the calculation of risk on the part of the general public changed.  There is a case for arguing that fear of infection has increased since the onset, despite recent evidence that the peak has been passed.  In March we knew that coronavirus was a serious form of flu.  We did not know just how easy it was to catch it, just how unpleasant it was to be in intensive care, just how terrible a form of dying it was, and just how ineffective the government would be in key areas such as testing or the provision of PPE. 

The government has been rightly criticised for allowing the Cheltenham Horse-racing Festival to go ahead in the week before it imposed the lockdown.  A quarter of a million people jostled together on the racecourse. Now Cheltenham, an otherwise prosperous town, is a coronavirus hotspot. It is worth asking whether, were a similar event to be sanctioned this month, anything like this number of spectators would choose to attend.  Gambling on horses is one thing.  Gambling on your life is something else [this reminds me of the character of Sammy the Gonoph in Damon Runyan’s stories.  Sammy was a professional bookmaker who could set odds on any competition, even life itself, which he calculated was, in the round, 5 to 4 against].

There are two conclusions to be drawn.  The first is that a successful navigation out of this storm will be more in the hands of we the people than our hapless governors.  When we decide to change, change will be feasible, and it is unlikely to be much influenced by public service announcements and daily press conferences.

The second is that the debate which is now taking place will once more highlight the issue of the coherence of British society.  We have temporarily forgotten the Brexit divide, but there are still immense variations by class, race and gender in the experience of coronavirus.   Those locked in small flats, those for whom the shutdown is wrecking their businesses or family economies, will be a good deal less patient with the lockdown than the retired historian who is writing this, looking out at Spring unfolding in his garden.

  • With regard to David Maughan Brown’s entry yesterday on the Johnson interview in the Sun on Sunday, if Johnson’s prospects were aligning with The Death of Stalin, the question, for those who saw the entertaining film, is who would be the Lavrentiy Beria of the event, the head of the secret police who attempted to take over after Stalin’s death and was murdered by his henchmen?  My money is on Michael Gove. 

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: on National Pride …

April 21stBritish readers will recall the carefully crafted address by the Queen on 5th April.  It studiously avoided saying anything about the Government whose leader had so embarrassed her over the proroguing of Parliament last Autumn.  Instead it concentrated on national character:

I hope in the years to come everyone will be able to take pride in how they responded to this challenge.  And those who come after us will say the Britons of this generation were as strong as any. That the attributes of self-discipline, of quiet good-humoured resolve and of fellow-feeling still characterise this country. The pride in who we are is not a part of our past, it defines our present and our future.

The question of whether we still have any right to take a national pride in the response to coronavirus has been thrown into relief by the revelations in the press over the weekend, particularly the 5,000-word piece in the Sunday Times.

The generalised ‘attributes of self-discipline, quiet good-humoured resolve and fellow-feeling’ remain valid.  Indeed, they have proved stronger than the Government initially feared as it hesitated about imposing a lock-down.  The street protests against restrictions on movement in the USA reported this week demonstrates what can happen in the absence of such resolve.  That said, there are also worrying reports about a sudden growth of domestic abuse inside closed-down families which may yet disfigure the celebration of fellow-feeling.

In terms of public policy, however, shame is the more appropriate sentiment.  Just ask yourself this question, of all the countries fighting the pandemic, which are seen as a model to be followed?  South Korea, New Zealand, Taiwan, Germany and some others.  No-one is viewing the daily British news conferences for lessons about what they should be doing.

It is not as though we have no inherited strengths.  We have an economy strong enough to withstand emergency bail-outs worth many billions of pounds.  We have a sophisticated production and distribution system which has ensured, unlike many developing countries, that there is still food in the shops.  We have a health service which, in contrast to Trump’s America, covers the whole population.  And once we led the world in the specific field of pandemic resolution.  No longer.  According to the Sunday Times:

“Several emergency planners and scientists said that the plans to protect the UK in a pandemic had once been a priority and had been well funded for the decade following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001. But then austerity cuts struck. “We were the envy of the world,” the source said, “but pandemic planning became a casualty of the austerity years, when there were more pressing needs.”  [to judge from a TV interview I saw, that ‘source’ is Sir David King, a former Chief Scientific Officer]

The planning had atrophied.  The funding had been cut.  And once the crisis began, the wrong decisions were taken by a Cabinet whose members had been appointed solely on the basis of their attitude to Brexit.  Its leader fulfilled all the expectations which his career had predicted:

“There’s no way you’re at war if your PM isn’t there,” the adviser said. “And what you learn about Boris was he didn’t chair any meetings. He liked his country breaks. He didn’t work weekends. It was like working for an old-fashioned chief executive in a local authority 20 years ago. There was a real sense that he didn’t do urgent crisis planning. It was exactly like people feared he would be.”

What we still have is a world-class scientific community (though universities, including Imperial, are going to be very hard hit by a combination of the pandemic and Brexit).  It may yet be that those working on a vaccine at Oxford and elsewhere will come up with the solution that will save the world.  Then, and only then, will we have a cause for national pride in how we responded.