Of course the Government needs to act to contain and suppress the spread of Covid-19, a serious disease that has killed many and could kill many more.
All reasonable people recognise that an outbreak on this scale needs to be met with effective action. The difficulties arise when we consider what that action should be and how long it should last.
It is now almost six months since the Government moved, as it said, to ‘flatten the curve’ of coronavirus outbreaks and so avoid a catastrophic overload of the NHS’s emergency and intensive care services.
As it happens, the curve was quite rapidly flattened. Since April 8 the number of Covid deaths has been falling more or less without interruption, and the daily toll remains mercifully low.
Now the PM’s new ‘rule of six’ has aroused justifiable scepticism in many who until now had been ready to go along with whatever the Government did
The great success of the building and staffing of the Nightingale hospitals was an extraordinarily impressive feat of organisation and hard work.
But it turned out not to be needed.
Though there will be arguments about this until the end of time, let us accept that this swift decline in the number of dangerous cases was an achievement of the initial lockdown, and a vindication of the Prime Minister’s swift and decisive leadership.
So far so good. And, while some may have wished that these actions had been taken sooner, the reopening of high streets, of pubs and restaurants, and the necessary economic stimulation of the ‘eat out to help out’ initiative, all helped to reinforce the idea that the Government was keen to get back to normal as soon as possible.
The furlough scheme, though enormously costly, also appears to have prevented many immediate job losses, though it remains to be seen if this effect will be permanent. We have to hope very hard that indications that we shall have a rapid ‘V-shaped’ economic recovery turn out to be correct.
The Government also eventually succeeded – despite an initial failure – in reopening schools, perhaps the single most vital step towards a revival of normality. A slow but definite return to work is under way in many sectors, though parts of the Government machine seem to have been reluctant to encourage this.
But in recent weeks it seems to have been a case of two steps forward, three steps back. The deeply unpopular and hard-to-justify imposition of quarantine on returning travellers destroyed many long-planned and much-needed family holidays.
And those who loyally obeyed the instruction in many cases found that – having done as they were asked – their actions were barely monitored.
Returning college students face restrictions on teaching and socialising that will drain their university experience of much of what would normally make it valuable, despite the statistically very small risk to the young from the virus.
The deeply unpopular and hard-to-justify imposition of quarantine on returning travellers destroyed many long-planned and much-needed family holidays
Various local lockdowns, supposedly justified by rising numbers of infections, devastated businesses that were just climbing out of their difficulties and gave a general impression that we were all living at the Government’s behest, free of interference only so long as a Minister or expert decided we should be.
Now the PM’s new ‘rule of six’ has aroused justifiable scepticism in many who until now had been ready to go along with whatever the Government did, on the grounds that it must know what it is doing.
Nobody seems to have any idea where this new maximum figure for a social or family gathering even came from.
But in hundreds of thousands of homes it appears to mean that plans for Christmas are now illegal, not least because of the considerable vigour with which Mr Johnson underlined his determination to impose this rule. But how can this limit realistically be enforced?
Countries that are used to being law-abiding will put up with a great deal, and the British people have certainly done so in the long months since the start of the lockdown on March 23. But when normal life is made illegal, and Christmas dinner appears to have turned into an arrestable offence, the patience of many will be tested too far.
This is the sort of law-making that can all too easily bring the law itself into disrepute, accompanied by damaging mockery of the sort that permanently undermines authority.
The problem is partly that the PM is under great pressure and operating in a small circle of close advisers increasingly shielded from normal daily life. He has also mistakenly swallowed the idea that there is something called ‘The Science’ that is definitive and supports this sort of policy.
When normal life is made illegal, and Christmas dinner appears to have turned into an arrestable offence, the patience of many will be tested too far
The fact is that science is a constant debate, fuelled by experiment and investigation. There are disagreements among scientists – epidemiologists, virologists, statisticians, and pathologists.
Perhaps it is time that the PM and his advisers opened their doors to such figures as the Oxford professors Sunetra Gupta and Carl Heneghan, to the advice of the world-renowned expert on microbiological medicine, Professor Sucharit Bhakdi of Mainz, to Professor Hugh Pennington of Aberdeen, who doubts the likelihood of the much-touted ‘second wave’, to the distinguished Pathologist John Lee – and to the man who has guided Sweden through the pandemic, Anders Tegnell.
In fact, now that Sweden has finally come off the quarantine list, is it not time for Mr Johnson to send a fact-finding mission to the European country that has managed to escape most of the worst aspects of lockdown and has – at the very least – done no worse than us as a result?
A breath of fresh expertise and new thinking is certainly needed. There is a grave danger that the restrictions of the lockdown are a ratchet, remaining in place long after they should have gone, and perhaps becoming permanent because nobody has the courage to end them.
The heartrending open letter that The Mail on Sunday details today, detailing the misery caused by the continuing (and unauthorised) separation of mothers and fathers during the birth of their children, is a poignant illustration of how such needless severity hurts individuals.
This is certainly not the only instance where caution has degenerated into officiousness and bureaucratic inertia, of the kind that Mr Johnson has always disliked.
Yes, indeed we must continue to be vigilant and careful, and ensure that the virus is contained. But that does not mean that we need to treat an entire nation of good-hearted and patient people as if they were naughty schoolchildren who cannot be trusted to make sensible decisions on their own. In fact the whole episode has shown that the people of this country are exceptionally responsible.
Do we really need legions of ‘Covid Marshals’ who will for certain abuse the small authority they are given, to tell us to be good and sensible? If the PM were getting better advice, and listening to some new voices, he would not be making mistakes such as this.
He has spent too long in his bunker. He should let the light in, sniff the fresh clean air of controversy and allow himself to be the Boris he has always been, open-minded and prepared to listen.