The Emperor needs some clothes: We should head to the shops

Britons are entering their sixth week in lockdown, with only the publication of a vague exit strategy to look forward to. Almost inevitably this plan will not provide a clear timeline and will instead rephrase the Government’s existing mantra of data dependence. This approach, with its focus on ‘seeing’ all available information, features a paradoxical and profound blindness to the broader reality of our situation.

The statistical evidence is that for the great majority of people the Coronavirus is a mild illness. Many will not even know they have been infected. Undoubtedly millions of people across the nation will have thought ‘I wonder if I had it when…’ and pointed to a recent bout of illness. We cannot know if this was the case without mass testing, although the reality is that for many the symptoms experienced whatever ‘it’ was were no worse than the Coronavirus would be.

Meanwhile, the collateral costs of the lockdown, but human and monetary, are burgeoning. We were, like many nations, slow to respond to the emergence of a novel virus. We, perhaps ill-advisedly, believed the initial information provided about the outbreak. Many at the head of the nation downplayed the chance of a rapidly spreading virus. Some even joked they were contributing to its spread. We were late to heed the warnings from Europe and our borders remained open: life continued broadly as normal.

On the 23rd March, the country entered a domestic lockdown. I stress domestic as our borders remain firmly open – as a quick glance at UK airport arrivals would show – and do not yet have any health screening in place. Our new regime was lax where it ought not to have been, and dictatorial where breathing room could have been given. For a government seemingly bent on treating its people as children, it seems to have mastered parenting almost uniquely badly. Many will know, or could reasonably predict, that it is far more effective to allow children some leeway to achieve long run obedience. Certain fun things in the afternoon might well prevent drawing on the walls in the morning. The terms of the lockdown allowed far more than just essential personnel to leave the home for work but refused the huge swathes of the population with little or no access to the outdoors the chance to sit on the grass. Even where proper social distancing between groups was maintained, the risk of someone touching the same area of grass as another person in the foreseeable future and spreading a typically mild virus was deemed too great. Besides, taking fresh air was not exercise and was, therefore, newly illegal. Bizarrely given the current social trend, the benefits to mental health time spent outside might bring were acknowledged but ignored in practice.

Thus, many Britons stay at home almost entirely and are disproportionately terrified of the virus. Some of this number seem to overcome their fear for a weekly mass gathering on Westminster Bridge. Until recently the emergency services also took part in this obviously counterproductive exercise. Three hours earlier, lots of us will have tuned into a daily government briefing – although some of us will have given up watching having found the news either too negative or, more likely, disturbingly repetitive. Either side of this daily update, the mainstream media delivers to the public stories of woe, most obviously a blow by blow account of the Kafka-esque pursuit of elusive PPE.

These stories centre on the Coronavirus itself, with other aspects of our current world receiving minimal coverage by comparison. If journalists wish to feed the public negativity – they should look to the unnecessary suffering and death due to other medical treatments fallen by the wayside. If journalists wish to feed the public misery – they should look to the surge in domestic violence. There is a grim irony that the number of people murdered in their homes by abusive partners has doubled in a period designed to keep Britons safe. These are not side effects of the lockdown – they are the result of the lockdown and this fact is woefully under recognised.

The Prime Minister has confirmed we are past the peak of the first outbreak. The ambition to prevent a second outbreak is now clearly in sight. The end of the lockdown remains blurry. I have deliberately avoided statistics: we are now inured to them. I have spoken nothing of what we might find left of our economy upon our return. It will, undoubtedly, be profoundly withered. A lockdown for a virus of this type should have been principally about buying time to build capacity. This has been achieved. Indeed, much of it now sits idle. It is high time the country begun to return to normal with confidence. This need not mean pulling the plug on our hard work. We are more than capable of expanding the shielding programme to the vulnerable, whilst liberating those relatively safe from the virus. We might have broken the back of Covid-19, but without change we will soon also break every bone in our collective body.

By E Carter

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