The Cummings’ saga has damaged the authority of the lockdown. Which will add to the fraying of it that has taken place since it was eased last week. Which followed the erosion that was taking place previously.
Which has all been driven by the ebbing of fear: gradually, and without thinking about it too much, people have come to grasp that the hospitals aren’t groaning with Coronavirus victims; indeed, that the Nightingales are empty.
So there is the force in the argument, put by Daniel Hannan today on this site, that they are telling the polls one thing while actually doing another, at least to some extent.
This “new normal” may emerge just in time to rescue the Government over the reopening of schools. When we last wrote about it ten days ago, the project was in a sticky place.
The core problem was put to ConservativeHome by a pollster and old education hand: “Ministers are telling parents to send their children back to school without also telling them that it’s safe to send their children back to school.”
The Government was and still is in a bind on the matter. After all, as some like to say about the precautionary principle, just how precautionary it is? Just how safe is safe? How much risk should one take?
The answer each of us gives to that last question will collectively decide the fate of the new normal. But there’s reason to think, from the way people are currently behaving, that they’re willing to take just a bit more.
And remember: Ministers aren’t planning to open up all schools before next autumn in any event. For most secondary school pupils, Alice Cooper still applies.
School’s out for summer! For a lot of weary parents, it must feel as though his next line’s true, too. School’s out forever!
Gavin Williamson’s efforts are bent on primary school pupils, arguably the least prone to the virus, certainly those who are impacting the economy most, because their parents are more likely to stay home too in consequence.
He hopes to have all of them back by the end of this school year, but is starting with “key transition years” – nursery, Reception, Year One and Year Six.
The Education Secretary won’t be to some parents’ taste as a salesman, but during his last hosting of the Government’s daily press conference, at which he made his pitch, he pushed all the right buttons, or tried to.
He pointed out correctly that most teachers will want to get back to work, that their vocation is one we should all value, that children are being harmed by a lack of schooling, and that vulnerable ones suffer most.
Williamson has studiously avoided union-bashing. That’s what the Tory press is there for. For enraged voters are not his target: he is zeroing in on the mass of questioning teachers and parents.
So he must come to the negotiating table without Cronos, his pet tarantula, perched on his shoulder. And at it he duly is. The National Education Union is still advising teachers not to talk to schools about re-opening.
None the less it, and other unions that have been less headbangingly destructive (i.e: almost all of them) have been and still are sitting round that table with the Secretary of State.
Class sizes will be halved, assemblies staggered, cleaning upped, drop-off protocols put in place, toys that are hard to clean removed and tests carried out if necessary.
The NEU has five tests, designed to be haggled out into the Greek Calends, and we wish Williamson every joy in his discussion of them.
At least 14 local authorities, most of them in the north-west, and so not a million miles away from the anti-Tory heartland of Liverpool, say they won’t open on June 1.
But most councils are leaving the decision up to individual heads and schools, and the powers of local government are limited in any event.
Furthermore, schools have been open during the lockdown throughout to children who are especially vulnerable or whose parents are key workers.
The famous statistic showing the power of social distancing is that Ministers expected 20 per cent of pupils to turn up, but that only one per cent have.
Fear of the disease will doubtless still be powerful on June 1. Some schools will close their doors. The NEU will still be protesting. And some parents are finding the furlough experience pleasant enough.
So Day One is set to go very patchily for Williamson. But by say the middle of the following week, the drift may have gathered pace, as most teachers don’t go down with the virus and children start to cast fear aside.
Those of us who aren’t parents may not have grasped how weird these times are for children – barred by the guidelines from hosting or visiting their friends, or for meeting in groups.
The youngest ones can’t use social media, and so have spent weeks cut off from others of their age, and from all children altogether, if they have no siblings.
A forest of research into the consequences will spring up in due course, but the Education Secretary and his colleagues must live in the here and now. Which is, as another Alice Cooper song put it, a Bed of Nails.