We in the media tend to focus on the short-term, a trait even more characteristic of social media, and so it proved yesterday as a second lockdown was announced.
Who leaked its details to the Times and Daily Mail yesterday morning? How can Downing Street complain if it is using Robert Peston in the same way itself?
What has happened to Cabinet government – with decision-making power now apparently vested in a new quad of four Ministers: Matt Hancock, Michael Gove, Rishi Sunak and the Prime Minister himself?
Has not Boris Johnson, who set up the three-tier system precisely in order to avoid an England-wide lockdown, lost all leadership credibility? Hasn’t Keir Starmer, who wanted a two-week firebreak instead, been proved right?
Will not the Prime Minister be torn to pieces in the Commons on Monday by a rampant Labour leader, as Conservative backbenchers seethe and glower?
These are all good questions – although we suspect that many voters will treat Johnson with more forebearance: after all, the whole of western Europe, and much of the rest of the world, is in the same boat as Britain.
Perhaps this is why the two main parties are neck and neck in Politico’s poll of polls – a surprising result given the current political, social and economic carnage.
Nonetheless, the best approach to this morning’s grim news is to try and focus on the medium and long terms – hard though this will be for some in our trade and for others.
First things first: this new lockdown is planned to be different from the old one, lasting for a month only – with workplaces and schools staying open.
The Prime Minister clearly intends to make this point to the Commons on Monday, while presumably making the point that Starmer’s proposed two-week firebreak was itself inadequate.
The cornerstone of his plan is presumably to get a shutdown over now, so that less restrictive conditions can apply at Christmas.
But if in one sense much has changed, in another we are back where we started. “Stay at home. Protect the NHS. And save lives,” Johnson declared in the closing sentence of his statement yesterday evening.
So in the spring, we face once again, if the projections on which he is relying are right, the horrific prospect of Lombardy-type scenes as ambulances queue outside A & E wards and patients gasp for air on trolleys.
While, in the meantime, patients who are turned away from hospital or can’t get to one die choking in their own homes without palliative care.
Locking down England is more likely to halt this appalling prospect than not doing so (though the force of the shutdown will be weakened by Scotland and Wales going their own ways).
Nonetheless, all the national and international evidence to date confirms that lockdowns, by their very nature, postpone but do not prevent rises in cases, hospitalisations and deaths.
For as soon as the deep freeze of a shutdown is lifted, the virus begins to seep back into the population. This being so, what reason will there be to lift this new lockdown on December 2, if the menace to the NHS remains?
Furthermore, how likely is it that the schools will remain open, as the National Education Union begins to agitate for them to close?
Won’t Starmer prepare the ground, when he responds to Johnson’s statement on Monday, for a further shutdown intensification – suggesting that it may have to be extended after early January to help save the NHS…?
…While all the while lambasting the Prime Minister for “complacency”, “arrogance” and “putting more lives at risk”? Captain Hindsight will present himself as Captain Foresight.
The grim fact is that we appear to be stuck, like our neighbours abroad, in a grisly cycle of winter lockdowns and summer loosenings.
Yes, it may be that a vaccine will turn up soon. But how much protection will it give, and how widely will it be available?
After all, Kate Bingham, Chair of the Government’s own vaccine taskforce, has said that less than half the adult population will be vaccinated.
Yes, it could be that Johnson’s new “moonshot” tests will deliver higher self-isolation rates – but we really don’t know, and not enough may be available quickly enough in any event.
And it is clear that test and trace has not delivered those rates to date. So if it didn’t so before the coming lockdown, how likely is it to do it afterwards?
Yes, the virus’ virulence could abate of its own accord, or herd immunity may eventually be attained. (Scientists now quarrel about whether that is possible.)
But none of this may happen – which is why the one count on which we are angry with the Prime Minister is his persistent suggestion that Something Will Turn Up.
He was at it again yesterday: “the scientists may be unanimously gloomy about the immediate options…but they are unanimously optimistic about the medium and the long term future.”
(They have to be: the more the public believes that the seventh cavalry will shortly come galloping over the hill, the less likely it is to give up hope altogether – and flout shutdowns and restrictions en masse.)
It is part of Johnson’s anti-depressive charm that he likes whistling a happy tune, which leaves him ill-suited to play his present role of Moribund the Burgermeister.
However, we believe that the voters should have been prepared long ago for the prospect of Covid-19 being here for the duration – and for our lives being, as Rishi Sunak doesn’t like to put it, “on hold”.
ConservativeHome’s members panel presumably agrees. In our latest monthly survey, only 18 per cent of respondents believe that the Government should “lift lockdowns and restrictions more slowly and less widely.
46 per cent want them lifted “more faster and more widely”. Meanwhile, 45 per cent want a Swedish-style approach, with fewer lockdowns and restrictions or testing and tracking – and more on voluntary social distancing.
That’s much the same result as last month. Our survey was carried out last week, before yesterday’s announcement, and the Prime Minister’s pitch woud presumably have swayed some respondents.
None the less, there has been a clear trend in favour of a more voluntarist strategy, mirroring a similar shift among Conservative MPs.
Tomorrow, they are likely to rally round Johnson as Starmer assails him, which is understandable. But they should be thinking about that medium and long-term too.
ConservativeHome is calling for regular Government assessments of the total impact of lockdowns, restrictions and the virus itself on lives and livelihoods.
Only once we have them will it be possible to trade off the costs, financial and social, of the policy choices that Ministers must now make.
The Chairman of the 1922 Committee and of the Treasury Select Committee have separately pushed for more information to be available – along with others, in Parliament and outside it.
Given the gravity of the national challenge, and the prospect of on-off shutdowns stretching on into the future, publication can no longer be delayed.
The motion which the Commons votes on this coming Wednesday should be amendable, and an amendment to this effect tabled by backbenchers and voted on by the House, if the Government won’t act itself.