Fear is at a high point in Britain at the moment and with very good reason. There is much to be frightened of as it turns out that Covid-19 has been quicker to learn from experience than bumbling Boris Johnson and his third-eleven team during a calamitous year in which they have zig-zagged between panic and complacency.
A process of mutation akin to natural selection of the fittest has produced a more virulent variant of the virus better able to invade its human hosts. This swift improvement in its ability to be spread contrasts with the repeated stumbles of the Johnson government since it first underestimated the epidemic in February and March.
This ensured an economically devastating 11-week lockdown, which might have been partially excused by the unprecedented nature of the crisis, if the government had not made exactly the same mistake in September and October, with equally disastrous results. The only common features in its approach over the year were amateurism and inconsistency.
Fear is an inescapable part of any life-threatening epidemic. This has always been true of the great outbreaks of disease in the past from bubonic plague to cholera and polio. The danger of death and injury during an epidemic is more pervasive than in wartime.
The consequent sense of fear gets bad press for being only a step away from cowardice, but it is essential as the only way to mobilise whole populations for common action and to persuade individuals to make sacrifices for the general good.
Much of the sorry saga of the British government’s shambolic response to the pandemic is about its inept and counter-productive manipulation of public fears. At the start of the year, it tried to downplay them because it underestimated the threat and half-opted – it is a government that does everything by halves – for “herd immunity”. Johnson attended the England v Wales rugby match on 7 March and allowed the Cheltenham Festival attended by 250,000 people go ahead three days later.
Selling herd immunity requires downplaying public fears about the gravity of the illness. The message being sent by those mass gatherings in March was that there was nothing much to worry about. Fortunately, people did not believe it, as they watched governments locking down all over Europe. By the time the British government, panicked by forecasts of hundreds of thousands of deaths, did impose a lockdown on 23 March, people were generally before them in wanting to close down the country.
I believe that at this moment the government made a serious mistake about the public mood. The very high level of compliance with the first lockdown was because people were genuinely frightened. When I took a walk for exercise I would pass through entirely empty streets, though the parked cars showed that people were in their houses. The ghostly quiet reminded me of the atmosphere in Beirut and Baghdad in the hour or two after they had been shelled or bombed.
The unexpectedly high compliance with the restrictions gave Johnson and his ministers a false impression that they had greater control over people’s behaviour than was the case, for the real motivation driving the lockdown was not the government mandate. Ministers did not see it that way, playing up undoubted scenes of carnage in hospitals as the precursor for worse horrors to come and the imminent collapse of the health service.
Bad though the situation was, it was not quite the Crimean War-type breakdown that was being portrayed night after night. There was no need to further frighten people who were already thoroughly scared. Exaggerating the horrors also risked discrediting the fear factor that would be a necessity in a prolonged campaign to contain the virus. As it was, national solidarity was greatly damaged by the revelation at the end of May about Dominic Cummings’ notorious trip to Barnard Castle, a turning point made more emphatic by Johnson’s refusal to sack him.
But the grossest error was the cavalier abandon with which the government changed gear on 4 July, lifting restrictions willy-nilly and giving the impression that the coronavirus was permanently contained. People were allowed to travel abroad with little hindrance and were subsidised to ‘Eat Out to Help Out’. No wonder that fear of the virus ebbed while many people, particularly in deprived areas, calculated that the risk of losing their job and not getting another one outweighed the receding danger of infection. Fear was still there but no longer exclusively of the virus.
The government now wants to blame all that has gone so spectacularly – and for many people fatally – wrong on the unforeseeable rise of the mutant virus. But it was clearly losing control of the crisis from September onwards, after Johnson rejected the two-week “circuit breaker” lockdown, recommended by the chief scientific officers and the Sage advisory committee.
Government press conferences and media focus too much on government restrictions and pay too little attention to whether or not people comply with them. Yet the evidence is that compliance is now low with a survey by Imperial College London finding that, while 70 per cent of those asked say they intend to isolate when necessary, only 20 per cent really do so.
Given the government’s failure to develop an effective test, trace and isolate system, despite spending £22bn, suppressing the virus to a significant degree must rely on the blunt and economically self-destructive instrument of the lockdown. But the impact of this has been seriously undermined by past failures, U-turns and, for many people, a feeling of burn-out leading to fatalism and a sense that “what will be, will be”.
Fear of a different type has a damaging consequence. The failures of the Johnson government have been investigated by well-known publications, government agencies, academic institutions and parliamentary committees. Their verdicts are damning on almost every aspect of government, such as a report that £8bn out of £16bn in PPE procurement contracts went to companies with connections to politicians in the Conservative Party. Yet these well-documented scandals seldom top the news and do surprisingly little harm to government credibility.
A partial explanation for this, aside from unrelenting government news management, is that nobody wants to discover, in the midst of one of the worst crisis to strike Britain since 1940, that those in charge of the country are incompetent nincompoops with their snouts buried deep in the trough. Nobody, however sceptical about the abilities of Johnson and his crew, had expected them to be quite as bad as they have turned out to be.
Traditional English deference towards the powers-that-be is wearing thin but, even so, many people resist facing up to the comic opera inadequacy of British leadership at a time of such extreme national peril – understandably so since it is a truly frightening sight.