If Boris Johnson suggested that English people should only be allowed to leave their homes for essential medical treatment, you sense that many would say, “Finally, some common sense!” And then ask whether medical care was really an excuse to step outside your front door. Even wise newspapers have ended up in tailspins of despair and lockdown one-upmanship: schools must stay closed! Seal our borders! Arrest the rule breakers! The fact that most people do follow the rules, that our airports are dead and that children’s education is on hold, doesn’t seem to register. Even the Financial Times has become a grandmaster of doom, running a series of comments in recent days suggesting that vaccines could fail and that this will be a “permawar” that will last for years. Thanks for that.
Meanwhile an opinion poll in The Observer newspaper found that most people want all coffee shops closed for takeaways, children’s nurseries shuttered, people prevented from exercising and the banning of click-and-collect services from all but essential shops (although you wonder whether these are people who drink tea, don’t have toddlers and are unlikely to be spotted doing a downward dog any time soon). Fear of the virus and its effects, which are being successfully contained by the current measures, apparently trumps stripping children of their life chances or pushing people into unemployment and poverty.
And the media that sits at the centre and left of politics is reluctant to enter a debate on these topics. Why should the right be the only place where counter views are at least aired?
Typical is the leader in The Times yesterday that called for the closing of Britain’s borders and admitted that while this would be touted as a “temporary” measure it could soon become “indefinite”. To what end though? That is apparently a question for the future: “In the present the case for action is urgent.” This mantra of “act now, think about the dangers later” seems unlikely to change any time soon – especially with many politicians trying to outdo each other with calls for added social curtailments.
The latest clamour for border closures looks set to win backing in some form from a UK government that is nervous of resisting the public. But it would be good to start asking a few questions. Can you really seal off a European nation? What would you do with the thousands of truck drivers that come to the UK every week for starters? And if measures only become tighter, with no space to question their merit – or offer hope – then will spring also deliver the sort of social unrest that’s broken out in the Netherlands? Surely action needs to be matched with reason. The social and economic hit balanced with the healthcare one. But even suggesting a debate now seems an incendiary idea to many.
Andrew Tuck is Monocle’s editor in chief. For a look at an extraordinary EU-UK spat over vaccines and their effectiveness, listen to ‘The Briefing’ on Monocle 24.