Lockdown twilight zone
It is an indisputable fact that had we locked down earlier, many thousands of lives lost to COVID-19 would have been saved.
Incontrovertibly, hindsight enjoys the luxury of 20/20 vision.
Equally, the unenviable decisions taken by our political leaders at a point in time during this pandemic can only be informed by science which, by the very nature of the virus, was inexact.
So, where does that leave us?
Here we are,12 weeks into a national lockdown that the Prime Minister said would have been time enough to “send coronavirus packing”. Yet with his arbitrary deadline now upon us, there are 40,000-plus dead, residents of care homes decimated, the economy bust, no vaccine available, the virus still dangerously prevalent and a hotch-potch of measures across the UK to take us on our first tentative steps out of lockdown.
Since 19 March, when Boris Johnson first spoke to the nation and boldly claimed that in 12 weeks “we can turn the tide”, he has been ill with the disease, inexplicably and doggedly defended the actions of his political adviser who broke the lockdown rules, has seen one of his chief scientific advisers resign after ignoring his own advice to meet his married lover, and watched the opinion polls charting his popularity plummet.
And during that period, while politicians parroted the ‘follow the science’ mantra, ‘the science’ has been shown to be an evolving and limited creature, with advice about face masks, social distancing, using the toilet, eating at BBQs or even having sex all having become contentious.
In three months, we have become a country of quack medics, with facts asserted with great confidence about a virus that even the scientists don’t yet fully understand. We have weighed up risk, listened to the guidance and then, based on personal judgement of what we have been told we can and can’t do, we have acted, satisfied that in our compliance with government policy, we have operated for the greater good. We have saved lives. What heroes.
But after weeks of this painful ‘all-in-it-together’ sacrifice, Professor Neil Ferguson, whose original scientific modelling informed UK policy, has said that we could have halved the death rate simply by locking down a week earlier than we did.
What a slap in the face.
But when Boris Johnson was asked by Sky Television’s Beth Rigby if there was anything he regretted, anything he would have done differently in dealing with this virus, he insulted us all by humming and hawing and looking seriously vacant. Rigby reminded the PM, lest he had misunderstood, that he is the man in charge, he took the decisions. At that, she found her microphone muted.
Turning a deaf ear to the inconvenient questions that are now being asked because both Johnson and, to be fair, Scotland’s first minister, deem them premature, stretches credulity.
The time is right, because time is of the essence.
And if mistakes were made going into the lockdown, which they clearly were, then it is reasonable, indeed vital, to ask questions about ‘the science’, judgements made, the politics, as we come out.
Johnson, it seems, can’t countenance regret. Sturgeon accepts that it’s there. It is that difference – that emotional intelligence – that may well decide their respective political futures.
But that’s for another day.
And so, despite the evident risks, with the ‘R’ rate hovering somewhere between ‘stop’ and ‘go’, we emerge into a lockdown twilight zone which, frankly, feels worse than the all or nothing that came before.
This is now a world where the four-nation approach has fractured. We are not all in it together. Rather, it is a time of trying to remember which government sanction phase applies, and with nothing of the clarity of the ‘stay at home, save lives’ advice or reassurances that increased freedom won’t undermine public health further.
Instead, we are left to fall back on our own resilience – our judgement on balancing the risks – and for many that is a more anxious state than simply a blanket ban.
Collective responsibility rests on a sense of belonging, of knowing that together you are part of a community. But people are now beginning to respond individually to this health crisis and that is creating tensions. I feel it in my own family, where some of the guidance makes little sense in a real-life situation with an elderly, housebound mother who needs help or a son who hasn’t seen his friends in months.
Yes, it can be confusing. There are anomalies. You can’t legislate for all manner of human behaviour or dynamics, but when partial lifting of restrictions means that a teenager could be allowed in a pub but not in school, or you could feed animals in the zoo but not satisfy your own carnal instincts, then it is little wonder that the grey areas cause, not just confusion, but great anguish,
Added to this is a bizarre view about the rules and to whom they should apply that is rooted, inexplicably, in an individual sense of entitlement and binary splits between the left and right or even of Leavers and Remainers. For example, the journalist Isobel Oakeshott attended a BBQ with her partner, Brexit Party chairman Richard Tice, at the Isle of Wight home of The Spectator magazine’s deputy editor Freddy Fray, and to which the Tory MP spearheading the COVID-19 contact tracing app on the south coast island was also present. When challenged, Oakeshott quipped that she has also tested her eyesight several times – in an apparent nod to Dominic Cummings’ plea for driving 60 miles to a beauty spot during lockdown.
Treating lockdown like some weird manifestation of a health and safety diktat gone mad is both ignorant and dangerous. Governments aren’t imposing restrictions on how we live our lives for their good of their own health; they’re doing it for yours.
So, question all you like the science, the sense and the logic behind rules that you feel you can bend because you can argue your own exceptionalism, but the one certainty you can rely on is that regardless of the mistakes that will have been made, if you stick to the rules, you are still saving lives.
We’ve stayed indoors, but the virus has been waiting.