The whole aim of practical politics, said HL Mencken, “is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”
It is hard to avoid the impression that officials are alarmed rather than pleased by the fading of the pandemic in Britain. They had a real hobgoblin to hand, and boy did they make the most of it, but it’s now turning into a pussy cat. So they are back to casting around for imaginary ones to justify their draconian – and deliciously popular – command and control over every detail of our lives. Look, variants!
And yes, the pandemic is fading fast. The vaccine is working “better than we could possibly have imagined”, according to Calum Semple, of the University of Liverpool, based on a study which found that it reduced hospitalisation by 98 per cent. With deaths from the virus now falling by more than 20 per cent a week and with overall mortality from all causes now below the long-term average, “we’ve moved from a pandemic to an endemic situation”, according to Sarah Walker, Professor of Medical Statistics and Epidemiology at Oxford and Chief Investigator on the ONS’s Covid-19 Infection Survey. The UK’s covid positivity rate at 0.2 per cent is now the fifth lowest in the world and lower than Taiwan and Israel.
Yet there is still barely a peep of optimism from Boris Johnson or Matt Hancock, with the former wrongly crediting lockdown and not vaccines for the fall in infections and gloomily adding: “As we unlock, the result will inevitably be that we will see more infections and, sadly, we will see more hospitalisation and deaths.” In summer? With the vulnerable half of the population almost fully vaccinated? With data showing that vaccine reduces hospitalisation by 98 per cent?
Sure, he was just being cautious, and is haunted by the memory of being too blasé about the virus last year, but there comes a point where such pessimism is itself irresponsible. It condemns the lonely to more anxiety and isolation; it prolongs the wait for treatment for too many cancer victims, for whom every day counts; it messes up the education of children and students; it drives more businesses to the wall; it deepens the national debt.
These hobgoblins matter too, but the solution to them is not more state intervention but less: to accelerate, not stick to, the timetable to liberate the country. It is still almost two months before we are due to lift the restrictions, and the virus is already struggling to survive. What happened to data not dates?
Yet the Government’s caution remains popular. Why is this? Because of the pessimism of officialdom – it is a circular argument. People readily believe in hobgoblins, and they rightly took fright at this horrible virus last year, so when Professors Whitty and Vallance tell them it’s still scary out there without a mask on, of course they believe it and resent their neighbours who do not comply. Yet to take that one example, the evidence that mask wearing has contributed to the decline in the virus is surprisingly thin, and especially among children in school mask wearing has been a grisly price to pay. To say so is to risk a furious response because mask wearing is no longer so much about preventing infection as about signalling that you are being careful.
As a group of doctors in Boston put it last year, “masks are not only tools, they are also talismans that may help increase health care workers’ ‘perceived’ sense of safety, well-being, and trust in their hospitals. Although such reactions may not be strictly logical, we are all subject to fear and anxiety, especially during times of crisis.”
But, variants! Yes, the virus is evolving: not just mutating, but changing through the selective survival of those mutants in certain environments. Some settings such as hospitals may well have selected for more virulent variants – because these sent you to hospital where more people came into contact with you – while others, such as outdoor gatherings would probably have promoted less harmful, if more infectious, versions. In short, I worry that lockdowns and the confinement of so much spread to healthcare settings may have delayed the taming of the virus.
In any case if a new variant appears that can evade the vaccine, then the answer is a new vaccine, not a new lockdown. What good would it do to keep us under house arrest forever in the vain hope that such a variant never got into the country in the first place?
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