Fear stalks our country. It swirls around the Cabinet table, and has entered Boris Johnson’s soul.
One of his main terrors, according to colleagues, is Nicola Sturgeon. The First Minister yesterday announced tougher measures aimed at controlling the rapid rise of the virus.
Mr Johnson is terrified that if the death rate in England should exceed that in Scotland, the pugnacious Ms Sturgeon will accuse him of being chaotic and unreliable.
Nicola Sturgeon announced tougher measures aimed at controlling the rapid rise of the virus on Wednesday
Her message to Scots would be that they are far safer with her than with reckless Tories down south. She would shore up her already solid support in the independence stand-off.
Boris is a passionate unionist, and doesn’t want to do anything to bolster her strong position. Much more than Labour’s Sir Keir Starmer, Nicola Sturgeon is shaping the Government’s policy over the pandemic.
So where she goes first, the Prime Minister is likely to follow. It probably won’t be long before large parts of England adopt similar measures to those announced in Edinburgh yesterday.
All pubs and restaurants in central Scotland will close for 16 days. In other areas they will be allowed to remain open but only to serve outdoors. These new rules will inevitably inflict more economic hardship.
Will they succeed? They go further than measures tried out in northern England but will do little to control the virus among students, who will remain free to socialise. I should be surprised if Nicola Sturgeon’s package brought down infection rates to the levels of a few weeks ago.
We had better be honest with ourselves. None of the clampdowns applied in northern England have worked. Quite the opposite, as Sir Keir correctly pointed out at yesterday’s Prime Minister’s Questions.
Mr Johnson is terrified that if the death rate in England should exceed that in Scotland, the pugnacious Ms Sturgeon will accuse him of being chaotic and unreliable
He said that when restrictions were introduced in Bury, the infection rate was around 20 per 100,000. Today it is 266. In Burnley the rate per 100,000 has risen from 21 to 434 since the start of the clampdown. In Bolton the rate has jumped 18 from to 255.
Hardly a triumph. Admittedly, it’s possible that without restrictions the rate would have gone up even more. But it’s clear that stricter rules have failed to rein in the virus.
Almost the only place where harsher measures have succeeded is Leicester. The reason is that restrictions there were more draconian. They approached in severity those experienced during national lockdown.
Two weeks ago, I predicted that, despite the Rule of Six and early closure of pubs, the number of daily cases of Covid-19 would keep rising. I added that ‘within weeks further coercive measures will therefore be announced’.
In truth, almost anyone could have foreseen what has happened, and almost anyone can predict what will happen now. The national daily infection rate will go on increasing, and more restrictions will be introduced.
Unless or until there is a vaccine, this debilitating on-off pattern — shutting down the economy, then opening it up again, then shutting it down once more — will continue
Only measures similar to those of lockdown will work. They may not be applied nationally, but before long swathes of the United Kingdom will be forced to submit to daunting new regulations. Our stuttering economic recovery will suffer.
Unless or until there is a vaccine, this debilitating on-off pattern — shutting down the economy, then opening it up again, then shutting it down once more — will continue.
And yet there is an alternative way, if only Boris Johnson and his supporters in a divided Cabinet could open their minds and throw off their fear — and engage in a proper debate.
Thousands of doctors and scientists from across the world have signed a letter known as the ‘Great Barrington Declaration’, named after the town in Massachusetts where it was conceived. It is the brainchild of three leading epidemiologists from Oxford, Harvard and Stanford universities.
It argues for a new tactic of ‘focused protection’. The elderly and vulnerable would be protected while the rest of society returned to normal life to build up herd immunity.
The letter points out that ‘vulnerability to death from Covid-19 is more than a thousand-fold higher in the old and infirm than the young’ and that ‘for children it is less dangerous than many other harms, including influenza’.
It declares that current policies are ‘producing devastating effects on public health’. These include ‘lower childhood vaccination rates, worsening cardiovascular disease outcomes, fewer cancer screenings and deteriorating mental health — leading to greater excess mortality in years to come, with the working class and younger members of society carrying the heaviest burden’.
In other words, the cure is worse than the disease. The Government and much of the media are so fixated on daily figures of new cases that they ignore the greater harm being done as a result of restrictions.
Meanwhile our national broadcaster, the BBC, isn’t good at putting Covid statistics in perspective. While dwelling on the growing number of cases, it seldom stresses that deaths are running at about five per cent of the rate at the height of the pandemic.
Nor is it seemingly very interested in debate. Many more exponents of tougher measures appear to be interviewed than distinguished scientific sceptics. ‘Professor Lockdown’, aka Neil Ferguson, remains a favourite of Auntie’s with his repressive toolkit. He was the scientist whose modelling helped trigger the lockdown — which he promptly broke with trysts with his married lover.
Shockingly, the BBC and much of the broadcast media yesterday morning largely ignored the explosive new letter. When I last looked, it had been signed by 3,621 medical and public health scientists and 5,919 medical practitioners.
It wasn’t mentioned on the news bulletins on Radio 4’s influential Today programme, although it was cited by presenter Nick Robinson during an interview with Trade Secretary Liz Truss.
Trade Secretary Liz Truss asserted that ‘none of the critics are proposing alternative measures’
She batted it away in an irritatingly smug way. While doing so, she asserted that ‘none of the critics are proposing alternative measures’. But that is precisely what they are doing!
Boris Johnson has said, more than once, that there is no alternative. So the Government persists with the present policy of restarting and stifling the economy. It’s not working.
According to the Government’s own modelling, 74,000 people will die from non-Covid causes as an indirect result of the lockdown imposed in March. How many more will die as a consequence of the regional lockdowns likely to be imposed in the next few weeks?
My suggestion is not that the signatories of the Great Barrington Declaration are right in every respect and the Government is entirely wrong. It is simply that there must be a better way than the one we are taking, and if the Government (and some of the media) weren’t so frightened of debate we might find it.
Why is Boris Johnson fearful? It’s partly because of the desire I’ve discussed not to give any advantage to Nicola Sturgeon. It’s partly because he had the stuffing knocked out of him by catching the disease, and so universalises his personal experience.
And it’s also because he is in thrall to scientists such as Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty who are zealots in their conviction that the only way to deal with Covid-19 is to try to knock it repeatedly over the head, even if in so doing you bring the whole of society and civilised life to a halt.
The virus is back big-time, and will make further gains. And the Government’s only policy is to march us straight back towards another lockdown.