Britain’s lockdown policy is based on a mix of hysterical overreaction, colossal misunderstanding and outright cock-up. And so long as Prime Minister Boris Johnson remains unwell, this is a man-made disaster from which no one in his weak and divided administration has the courage, nous or authority to extricate the country.
This is the disturbing state of affairs outlined by Fraser Nelson in a column for the Daily Telegraph headlined ‘Boris is worried lockdown has gone too far, but only he can end it’.
Nelson has talked to a number of ministers in Boris’s administration and found a Cabinet confused and divided.
It is split into three factions:
Some think the lockdown is, if anything, too lax. (One minister has even proposed adopting a French-style system, demanding that no one steps outside without papers authorising them to do so). Then we have those who think the cure is already worse than the disease and want to phase out lockdown at the earliest opportunity. Then a third group who think it doesn’t matter what Government thinks. Public opinion, they argue, led us into the lockdown, so only public opinion can lead us out.
This disarray is disturbing enough for those hoping for a swift end to Britain’s lockdown misery — especially if Boris Johnson remains in recovery and out of full communication for weeks, not days.
But what’s even more frightening is the clear implication that none of this was really planned: it’s all the result of a terrible misunderstanding.
‘Our message was supposed to be: keep working, but work from home if possible’, says one minister. ‘But that message has got lost.’ The Treasury expected three million claimants for its ‘job retention’ scheme. Nine million are now expected. The plan was for about one in five school pupils to stay in class: not just the children of key workers, but also those regarded as vulnerable or with special needs. Instead it seems just 2 per cent of pupils turned up.
This was troubling Boris Johnson during his initial Covid self confinement. He’d started to discuss this with colleagues. Had they overdone the message? The stay-at-home exhortations were issued with such vigour because it was assumed – wrongly – that Brits would not really listen. Instead, we’ve become as obedient as Swedes, while the Swedes – in their collective refusal to lock down – are behaving like Brits. But it’s hard to soften the lockdown message with the Prime Minister, the main messenger, out of intensive care – but until he fully recovers, out of action.
As I argued earlier on in this fiasco, whatever your feelings about Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, we in Britain and the U.S. are most fortunate in having leaders who instincts tend towards liberty rather than ever bigger government.
Unfortunately, there are plenty of conservatives-in-name-only — in both administrations — who think the exact opposite. This is a great worry if, as I do, you fear that great Coronavirus Pandemic of 2020 has been leapt upon as a great excuse for a monumental power grab by the liberal-left.
Whether or not the liberal-left succeeds depends to a great extent, on how swiftly our leaders can steer our countries to normality before our economies lie in total ruins and big government has socialised everything.
Perhaps the scariest thing so far — more scary you might argue, than anything the actual virus has managed — is the effect the media-generated hysteria is having on a cowed, abject and compliant populace. Instead of resisting draconian constraints on their freedom, a disturbing number of people have welcomed them. Not content with sheepishly doing exactly as they are told, they have even gone so far as to snoop and snitch on their neighbours for perceived infractions such as ‘taking more than one piece of exercise per day’ or buying non-essential goods in the supermarket.
A friend of my father’s experienced this just the other day: a fellow shopper reprimanded her because she was trying to buy a nail file alongside her groceries.
We appear to have become trapped in an ‘Availability Cascade’ — the phrase used by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman to describe the ‘dangerous interplay between media and policy makers’.
As economics professors Robert M Sauer and Donald Siegel put it recently in a must-read opinion piece for the Jerusalem Post:
‘An availability cascade is a self-sustaining chain of events which may start from media reports of a relatively minor event and lead up to public panic and large-scale government action. On some occasions, a media story about a risk catches the attention of a segment of the public, which becomes aroused and worried. This emotional reaction becomes a story in itself, prompting additional coverage in the media, which in turn produces greater concern and involvement.
The cycle is sometimes sped along deliberately by ‘availability entrepreneurs’, individuals or organisations who work to ensure a continuous flow of worrying news. The danger is increasingly exaggerated as the media compete for attention-grabbing headlines.
Scientists and others who try to dampen the increasing fear and revulsion attract little attention, most of it hostile: Anyone who claims that the danger is overstated is suspected of association with a ‘heinous cover-up.’
In other words in Britain, the U.S. and elsewhere we are trapped in a vicious cycle from which our politicians are all but powerless to extricate us. Any sign of relaxing the stringent lockdown methods will be pounced on by the mainstream media and used to whip up public hysteria that human lives are being sacrificed on the altar of ‘the economy’.
I’m ashamed of my fellow journalists in the mainstream media for stoking up this panic.
But I’m even more ashamed of those of my countrymen — and their equivalents around the world — who have embraced authoritarianism not just with panic-driven alacrity but also with more than a hint of fascistic enthusiasm.
Rarely have the words of Benjamin Franklin felt more appropriate to our times:
“They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
In the meantime, please Boris, get very well, very soon. It’s starting to look as if — in Britain at least — you’re our only hope of extricating ourselves from this increasingly man-made disaster.