Even an extremely competent government would have struggled with the coronavirus pandemic. In fact, around the world, many competent governments did struggle, and are struggling. I am no fan of French president Emmanuel Macron (a ghoulish neoliberal) or German chancellor Angela Merkel (a joyless puritan), but neither is as facially ridiculous as our current prime minister, and each has struggled significantly this year. Australia has handled things better, but not without its share of slip-ups. New Zealand is doing remarkably well. To hear the People’s Republic of China tell it, the Chinese have been able to control the outbreak remarkably well — though we should perhaps be reluctant to put too much faith in the People’s Republic of China.*
Of course, the United Kingdom is not at present blessed with a competent government.** Far from it. Our leaders wasted precious time in February and March, telling us to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ as we washed our hands even as the bodies piled up in Spain and Italy. They failed to deliver on promises of a ‘world-beating’ track and trace system, eventually limping to the finish line with an app that is, apparently, worryingly incapable of tracking or tracing to anything like the required extent. By the time a second lockdown was announced in late October, just weeks after the government had stopped exhorting us to get out to restaurants, comedy and tragedy were all but indistinguishable.
The Christmas Conundrum
It is fair to say, then, that our government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic has not impressed me.
The country staggered towards the end of the year, broken and bruised. Tiers of restrictions were introduced, debated, revised, and rebranded. And on the horizon loomed Christmas — a major national holiday, when families and friends travel the country to gather together indoors, eating and drinking and making merry together. The holiday could not go ahead as normal, of course, but it seemed clear that some relaxation on restrictions would be announced, and so it was. From Wednesday 23 to Sunday 27 December, UK residents would be allowed to travel and gather together in groups of three households or less — a compromise that pleased no one entirely, but that seemed to strike something like a fair balance between public health and public sanity.
And make no mistake: a balance must be struck.*** Keeping restrictions too tight over Christmas would be disastrous. Leaving aside the potential effects on the mental health of an already battered population, tight restrictions risk undermining the rule of law itself. By banning even moderate Christmas gatherings, the UK government threatens to make criminals of huge swathes of the population.
If tight restrictions are enforced only laxly, they will undermine the government’s ability to demand citizens’ consent for future restrictions. If they are enforced in a draconian manner, the police and court systems will be stretched to their limit, with officers and judges potentially forced to exact punitive justice against millions of their fellow citizens. If they are enforced unevenly, they may well fall harder on certain groups, creating a new scandal of inequity to further besmirch our criminal justice system.
All of which makes today’s (Saturday 19 December) announcement all the more foolish. As of 4pm today, the travel window has been restricted to Christmas Day only, while those in London and the South East are denied even that. A man like Boris Johnson might not be able to understand the importance of trust, but even he must see that citizens will not react kindly to being made criminals for taking actions they were assured just weeks before would be within the law. With the new restrictions due to take effect from a minute after midnight, we may already see a mass exodus from the most restricted regions. Whatever chaos might arise from tightly packed swarms of people fighting to escape must be blamed solely on our uncaring, incompetent leaders.
Boris Johnson is no stranger to U-turns. He would do well to locate his handbrake and steering wheel before he travels any further down this dangerous, divisive road.
*Among other things, China suppressed early reports of the novel coronavirus, muzzled whistleblower medics, and has already attempted to shift blame for the worldwide outbreak to states such as Italy and India.
**Despite his well earned reputation for personal unpleasantness, professional shirking, and political opportunism, Johnson continues to fail upwards, even as scandalous details of his government’s corruption repeatedly emerge.
***Thankfully, most across the country seem to recognise this, with pious claims that Christmas should receive no relaxation that was not also extended to other occasions such as Eid mostly restricted to some of the more insufferable corners of ‘social justice’ Twitter. The fact that such claims seemed to restrict the civic importance of Christmas to Christians went mostly unremarked upon.