Thank you, Dominic Cummings. Any pretence that lockdown is led by “the science” has always been rubbish. It has been an exercise in social control by an initially panic-driven government. However laudatory its aim, its execution has been driven by graphic predictions validated by highly selective science. Now it is hurting people and hurting him. This is politics.
The great populist fallacy is that all a leader needs to claim consent is to win an occasional election. Then anything goes. Philosophers from John Locke to John Stuart Mill have stressed that democracy also requires a continuing contract, in which the state receives the trust of the people by trusting them in turn, rather than enslaving them.
This week we have learned that Britons will accept extraordinary – indeed unprecedented – state control over their private and working lives if they can be made to feel their security is under threat. They will tolerate absurdity and blatant unfairness. Beaches may be opened to the crowds, but mountains must be closed off. Off-licences may open but churches must shut. Fines have been levied disproportionately to some groups over others. Garden centres were lethal but supermarkets not. In all honesty, these were the killjoy reflexes of bureaucrats on a control binge.
All this was based on a government policy decision, that such blanket controls were vital to avert a disaster. Such trust is an inherent feature of stable western democracies. It is notable that, during the pandemic, faith in elected leaders has been equally strong where they have pursued lockdown as where they have not, as in Sweden. The message is clear. Democrats naturally trust elected governments in time of stress, irrespective of the policy.
That trust is delicate. Insult it and consent collapses. In the Cummings affair, he may seem hard done by. Anyone could sympathise with his and his wife’s predicament. But he called the policy’s bluff. He too found the rules imposed by his own regime to be authoritarian and intolerable. When blanket rules came face to face with Kant’s crooked timber of humanity, as they did in a wood near Barnard Castle, trust and consent both disintegrated. Cummings was that crooked timber, and the public howled its rage.
The Johnson team now seems out of its depth. Grasping at science has become grasping at a passing lifebelt. As lockdown wanes, the policy variation within the UK as well as across Europe is not between different sciences but between different politics. Six English people equal eight Scots. The distancing gap between Britain and France is between two metres and one – a gap of political risk, not science.
Test and trace now follows the Isle of Wight app as a marker on the descent from lockdown. Health minister Matt Hancock has drummed up a discipline called “civic duty”, as yet unheard from a central government minister. Backed by a threat of financial sanction, tens of thousands of citizens are being induced to sneak on their friends, be they innocent or guilty, and impose on them a fortnight of what Johnson has unwisely called “captivity”.
This virus is now seven weeks past its acknowledged UK peak, and is on a remarkably similar trajectory of decline everywhere. It seems increasingly plausible that differences in national death rates are due not to variants in the severity of lockdowns, but to variants in government care and treatment of the elderly. In other words, they depend not on infectiousness but on domestic health policies.
Either way, Britain’s policy on coronavirus has clearly been disastrous. The press might trumpet America’s 100,000 deaths. But America is a big country and, on the most sensible generalised measure of “excess deaths per million”, Britain’s rate is not just three times America’s but possibly the worst in the world, at 890 against American’s roughly 250. Even its deaths per million are higher than America’s.
Johnson and Hancock remain in denial over the apparent reasons for this, that thousands of Britons appear to have died after being ejected or turned away from NHS hospitals, either dumped into care homes or having vital operations postponed. Thousands more may have died at home, through being terrified by Johnson into not seeking hospital care at all.
This saga is approaching its end and there must be a reckoning. Perhaps some lives have been saved by lockdown. If so, it is strange that countries that rejected it, from Sweden to Taiwan, have seen a lower death rate than Britain. Meanwhile the longer lockdown lasts, the faster its cost rises towards the staggering total of £200bn. How many lives might that have saved?
With budget deficit now predicted to reach 17% of GDP, Britain now faces a double humiliation: the world’s highest coronavirus death rate and the worst resulting economic collapse. Johnson likes blood-curdling “worst-case scenarios”. Mine is that this will prove to be Britain’s most catastrophic and costly policy failure in modern times. If so, I hope a memorial plaque to the demise of responsible Toryism is fixed to a certain Barnard Castle tree.
• Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist