Damian Green is Chair of the One Nation Caucus, a former First Secretary of State and is MP for Ashford.
“Things fall apart. The centre cannot hold.” Yeats’ lines have been quoted in many contexts, but they are now pertinent to the dilemma facing the Government over Covid-19 policy. Ministers are pursuing a perfectly respectable policy of balancing the economic needs of the country with the health needs of stopping the virus spreading too fast. The question is whether this balancing act can last.
In the early days deciding the policy was relatively easy. To avoid horrific numbers of deaths the national economy had to be shut. Eight months later, ironically, the fact that our knowledge about the virus has improved, along with improvements in tracking and tracing, makes the decisions more difficult.
This is because we now have the ability to take apparently fine-grained decisions about which restrictions should apply to individual regions, towns, and even wards. Your town, perhaps your street, will find itself moved from Tier to Tier in the new system as the experts and politicians dictate.
I say apparently fine-grained because of course much of this is guesswork. Highly educated and calibrated guesswork, to be sure, but it is absolutely not the application of agreed scientific laws to a familiar situation, which will therefore produce a predictable result. Saying we are “following the science” is not as neutral as it sounds.
Scientists can honestly disagree, as much as politicians can. There are perfectly respectable scientific arguments for what can be called the “Sage” view, which is that at present a national circuit-breaker lockdown is needed, just as there is a case for the “Swedish” view, which is that we should live our lives relatively normally, but take extra care in any situation where we interact with strangers.
Our Government is trying to steer a middle course, and at the moment this is proving a tortuous path. Up to now the public has been rightly sympathetic. These problems are not just difficult, they are unprecedented, and to expect everything to work perfectly first time is unrealistic. Outside the tiresomeness of the Twitterati we get this. But the public does need to understand the rules, and to know that they are broadly working.
We are at a dangerous point where those rules may be have become too complicated to follow, and therefore to appear arbitrary. I hope the tiered system works, and everyone understands why their particular area is facing the restrictions it does. But any significant minority disobeying the rules or travelling to neighbouring areas and spreading the virus will mean we see constant changes of tier, and consequent irritation.
On top of that, the details of the system (what is a “substantial meal” which gives you the right to drink alcohol in a pub?) are inevitably going to create confusion. Then there is the difference between guidance and legal prohibitions. Do any of us know from week to week what is discouraged and what is illegal?
So is the balanced, nuanced route doomed to failure? It may be too early to think of radical changes, but we ought to have a debate about whether the only way to maintain public consent is to go for one of the simple options. Either we lock down again or we unlock and trust to common sense.
It is perfectly clear that if you forced Ministers to take one route or the other today they would have to go for lockdown. The rising death toll, which we can grimly expect to continue for at least the next few weeks, would make it politically and perhaps morally impossible to take any other decision today. It is not just that polls show the public leaning this way (which is presumably why Keir Starmer is moving fast in this direction) but the power of daily events.
Yet we all know the economic effects that this kind of policy has. And we also know that a disrupted economy and rising unemployment means not only increased mental health problems in the short term, but a long-term inability to service the type of health service we need and expect in the years ahead. So even in the face of rising public disquiet and anxiety there is a case to be made for normal life, garnished with extreme personal caution.
At this stage a normal opinion piece would have to choose. More importantly a Minister would have to choose, with real life consequences. At the moment I am neither a paid columnist nor a Minister, so I can duck the decision and leave it to others to judge.
But two things are clear. First, splitting the difference between clear alternatives may not be sustainable during the coming rough months. Secondly, if we do not have a vaccine on the near horizon by Christmas, all that conventional wisdom that 2021 will be a relief after 2020 will look depressingly hollow.