It can be argued that virtually all the government’s responses to the coronavirus have been inadequate, from the testing fiasco to the failure to swiftly close our borders to infected arrivals (in contrast to countries such as Australia), the shambles of the track-and-trace plans, the disaster of transferring infected geriatric patients from NHS hospital beds to care homes, and the fact that we remain in near lockdown after 14 weeks of, in effect, house arrest.
However, it is undeniable that one government programme has succeeded beyond measure: the campaign to scare the country witless. Since the initial lockdown in March, messages such as “Stay at Home”, “Protect the NHS” and “Save Lives” have been ubiquitous across every possible form of media. The absence of many advertisers has made their incessant demands stand out even more. A Cambridge University survey suggested that the British were more anxious about Covid-19 than any other nation of the 10 in the study. This all-consuming obsession with death and disease is in itself deeply unhealthy.
Sadly, too few people have the slightest idea of the actual risk of their being hospitalised or dying from the coronavirus. Probably the majority of those infected with the disease in this country caught it in hospitals or nursing homes — catching it in the community was always unlikely. According to NHS England, 95% of those who have died in hospitals had a pre-existing health condition such as dementia, cancer, heart disease or diabetes. The highest proportion of deaths was in the 75-84 age group; healthy people under 40 run a very low risk of dying from Covid-19. That means for almost the entire working population it was not a serious threat — yet despite that, we meekly complied with draconian policies that turned our lives upside down.
I doubt it was the government’s propaganda alone that put the entire nation into an irrational funk. Perhaps it was also the fact that our very high-profile, recently elected prime minister contracted the illness and appeared to be at death’s door at one point. Or was it the overblown part in national life played by the NHS that fuelled our coronavirus obsession? Which other country indulged in a mass ritual like Clap for Carers for 10 weeks? Are we a fundamentally more gullible nation than others, or perhaps more law-abiding, and so swallowed the official scaremongering to an excessive degree?
Possibly the power and overwhelming presence of the media has been a critical factor. I wonder whether other countries have such shrill TV and social media as us, hyping up anxiety and driving millions to irrational levels of fear. Even the state broadcaster, the BBC, which should be the voice of calm reason and the dispassionate reporting of facts, has helped to spread the panic.
It seems we are too easily led. We should take a more robust attitude towards our basic freedoms and our right to earn a living and conduct our daily lives in peace. This all matters, because an overly risk-averse society is not one that prospers or offers opportunities. Unless we recover our confidence and enthusiasm for life very quickly, we will compound the destruction caused by the pandemic.
People who still have jobs must all return to work; public transport needs to get back to full strength; hospitals and clinics need to resume usual treatments and diagnoses of conditions other than Covid-19; all public venues should be allowed to reopen completely; quarantine should be scrapped and travel permitted in full; schools should function without restrictions, and allow our children to make up for the education they have missed.
We cannot afford any longer to wallow in a state of dread, cowering at home as the country falls behind on every measure of civilisation that counts — unproductive, diminished and pathetic. The preoccupation with daily death counts, the R number and so forth should stop. This impoverished existence in lockdown must end and never be repeated.
Britain should wake from this induced coma, turn off the alarm and ignore the virus fanatics. There is a great deal of lost ground to be made up: debt, unemployment and insolvency have all piled up during the shutdown. Now the nation must graft furiously to prevent the damage becoming a self-reinforcing spiral of despair. We have the capacity to reconstruct our lives, but first we need to muster our courage and apply ourselves like never before.