This crisis will be decided by politics, not science

2 May 2020

9:00 AM

2 May 2020

9:00 AM

One of the strangest developments to have occurred during this very strange time is that the Prime Minister’s special adviser, Dominic Cummings, may have attended a meeting of some people. Worse, various politicians are suggesting that he may have actually said something at this meeting. Very senior people are insisting that if Mr Cummings did say something at this meeting, even if we have no idea as to what it was he said (‘Can you fetch the Gummy Bears please, Mary, I think this going to be a long one’ or ‘Sorry, Zoom is on the blink again’), then he shouldn’t have done so. The Prime Minister’s special adviser attending a meeting! I think of all the various calumnies which have occurred during this crisis, this is by far the gravest. Someone should table some questions. ‘Can the Prime Minister confirm that his special adviser attended a meeting and, further, the two later wilfully discussed the events of that meeting? If so, should he not resign?’

If the uncompromising bacterium Yersinia pestis had descended on us all, rather than the ectoplasmic virus Covid-19, and the population of the UK reduced by two thirds with vast funeral pyres in our cities, then there would still be sufficient people left to do nothing but fume over the existence of Mr Cummings. He is the portal through which one can attack the radical thrust of the government, given that for the moment at least Boris Johnson is inoculated as a consequence of his brush with Covid. Remove Cummings and you excise much of the energy and, dare I say, the intellectual clout of this administration — which is, of course, why the civil service and half of the MPs want him out. For that reason it is vital — now and post-virus — that he stays.

I keep being asked how the Prime Minister will emerge from this interesting descent of ours into a kind of gentle Ballardian dystopia. ‘Alive, at least,’ is the obvious response. Other than that, who knows? For the moment the government has public support, but that diminishes the longer lockdown continues. The government knows this but is anxious to ensure that any early relaxation of lockdown (and thus a probable, if not assured, second wave of the virus) is not quite of their doing. This relaxation is already with us, of course. Many, many more people are out and about doing non–essential stuff than was the case three weeks ago. Burger King and McDonald’s are to re-open their drive-thrus. Wizz Air thinks people will want to fly to hot places, and is probably correct. There are long queues outside B&Q, and traffic jams in London. Officially sanctioned or otherwise, life is gradually returning to a kind of stunted normality.

The question, then, is whether the government is right to allow this to happen while simultaneously insisting that the lockdown must continue? It seems to me a little disingenuous. My suspicion is that it is less the clamour from business that has provoked this laxness than the clamour from the voters. There is, for a while, money to help our businesses. But how does one assuage an impatient populace hungry for fast food, shagging and garden ornaments? By letting them dig their own graves without official sanction, I suppose, and thus endanger the rest of us.

That is the risk for the government. Electorally, the Covid divide is interesting. While ideologically the left (broadly) has been in favour of restrictions on movement, placing the wellbeing of the population above economic concerns (which, of course, have their own impact on health and wellbeing) and the right inclined to believe that we have ‘overreacted’ to a fairly mediocre virus and are consequently headed for the poorhouse, those now flouting the lockdown do not quite fit that broad generality. The flouters have tended to be young, urban and metropolitan: I suspect you could count the number of Tory voters among them on one hand. Meanwhile, it is most emphatically Tory voters who are at risk from the virus; the older you are, the more likely you are to vote Conservative and the more likely you are to die of Covid-19. Further, away from the big cities and towns, the lockdown impinges far less on the lives of people. These people, who are enduring lockdown with no great hardship, are predominantly Conservative voters too. My guess, and it is only a guess, is that a large majority of those people who voted Conservative in December 2019 would be happy for a tightish lockdown to continue. Boris might factor that into his reckoning. And yet there is also this to consider: might it not be better to relax lockdown now and thus ensure a second wave occurred in July, rather than November?

These are all political, not scientific, decisions waiting to be made. There is no scientific truth to Covid-19, as yet — and perhaps never will be. The government’s task is to navigate, somehow, between the wildly different prognoses offered by an enormous array of scientific experts and to try to grasp the full picture — which is why it is important that people such as Cummings be present to hear what the likes of Professor Neil Ferguson and others have to say. The final decisions must be political, because science does not have the answers and no single scientist has a monopoly on the objective truth.

How will Boris’s administration emerge? It seems to me to have been slow to impose travel restrictions, slowish to get to grips with testing and very slow to give frontline workers the necessary personal protection equipment. But then the same was true in most other countries. In the Covid-19 league table the UK seems to me, from the stats, to be upper-mid-table in its response, below the likes of Germany and Vietnam, well above Belgium, Spain, Italy and the USA. But the season is not over and those rankings might change. Our problem: we crave certainty. Sorry, but there is none.

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