Beating the Bug

I don’t watch much television but the other evening I saw Matthew Hancock, the Secretary of State for Health, threatening to ban outdoor exercise if people continued to break ‘social distancing’ rules. From a Government that claims to be preserving life and health, this threat was literally bonkers. 

Banning exercise for any length of time will lead to the deaths and illness of many thousands of currently healthy, older people who know that exercise is vital to their physical and mental wellbeing and let’s face it, exercise can easily be taken while maintaining the required distance from others. 

The threat was a dictatorial one, of collective punishment of all for the wrongdoing of others. In itself it was illegal under Article 33 of the 1949 Geneva Conventions. A foreign occupier would not be allowed to threaten us all like this. 

Mr Hancock also said it was ‘quite extraordinary’ that some people had spent the weekend sunbathing in public places despite it being against Government guidance. Getting into his stride, he urged people not to sit down even for a minute on a park bench, saying those who disobeyed the rules were putting their own and others’ lives at risk.

Where does he get this tommytwaddle from damnit?! Two people sitting quietly on a bench are not putting anyone in danger. The words of Ministers like Hancock and the words and actions of the police show a pointlessly bureaucratic side to these measures – the attempted ban on Easter egg purchases, the sunbathing squad, alleged arrests of people for buying wine and crisps, the arrogantly overbearing threat by a police chief to search the baskets of shoppers. 

Provided the people doing these things are not breaking the distancing rules, why are they wrong? 

Sunbathing, for instance, probably reduces the risk of infection, and if people keep a proper distance apart, what on earth is wrong with it? Why shouldn’t someone sit on a park bench?

Mr Hancock said: ‘I say this to the small minority of people who are breaking the rules or pushing the boundaries: you are risking your own life and the lives of others and you’re making it harder for us all.’

This is bullying cant and unedifying from a senior politician. Personally I try hard to follow the Government’s rule on social distancing. I don’t really believe in it, but it is only polite not to offend openly against it.  

Unlike the Government’s wild destruction of the economy, and its attack on personal liberty, it can do no harm to keep your distance from others. It might even do some good, but I am anxious that there is something more going on here. 

The Government are trying to get us to accept a far higher level of state intrusion in our lives than we have ever endured. They are treating us as if we were unruly children. This is despite what to my eyes at least seems a quite extraordinary willingness among the great majority to do as we are asked. 

It has gone to their heads I’m afraid. The politicians who lecture us each evening need to calm down, for the sake of us all. We are not children and this is not some 1950s prep school ruled by the swish of the cane. Calm down Mr Hancock. You do not know it all.

Don’t you find it a wee bit off putting when BBC weather presenters tell us that it is going to be sunny and, in the next breath, warn us to stay at home. Is that really their job? 

Of course, they are doing what they have been told, but when even the weather becomes a public health announcement, we enter slightly worrying new territory. This is nannying going a little too far I’m afraid.

One of the notable things about the coronavirus crisis is how it’s caused politics to go into voluntary self-isolation. When I say ‘politics’, I mean pre-pandemic politics. Remember how we hated it? Each side biting chunks out of the other and nobody resorting to reasoned argument.

They’re only in it for themselves. They’re sleazy. They don’t really care about the people who put them in power. Most of us have said these things. So what’s happened to all that? I suppose Bunter Johnson’s illness was bound to stop the opposition in its tracks, even with a brand new leader. 

Sir Keir Starmer may be a clever lawyer with an eye for detail, but what he dare not risk is being seen to question the ‘national effort’ led by such notables as Mathew Hancock. And he certainly cannot criticise a Prime Minister who has been in intensive care. 

Politics, along with the economy, has been put aside. It is not just that politicians are on their best behaviour, which might be regarded as appropriate in the circumstances. It’s that there is no longer a political forum and that is not right. 

We now live in a parliamentary democracy without a parliament. Instead of politics we have government by a handful of people who cannot even agree among themselves. Take the one major issue that really does need to be questioned – the failure to get a fully-functioning testing regime up and running.

In the bad old days, political discussion on this would have been peppered with opposition accusations that the Tories were determined to privatise the NHS and use the billions they should have spent on protecting the nation to cut taxes rather than give nurses a living wage. 

We are all familiar with that kind of rhetoric and perhaps we are better off without knee-jerk political squabbling. But there are serious questions to be asked and the daily 5pm briefing from Downing Street is a pretty inadequate way of getting answers. 

Again, I seldom watch this daily parade of the self-appointed great and good but when I do, I am often appalled. Take the occasion a couple of days ago when Chancellor Rishi Sunak – supported by his scientific advisers – was able to get away with denying that the chief medical officer Chris Whitty had ever said rigorous testing had been vital in enabling Germany to achieve many fewer deaths. 

But he did damnit – I heard him myself – and Sunak should have been hauled over the coals. People are dying because we have not been testing as we should have. And where is the tough debate about when and how we end the lock down? Yes, I know there are no simple answers, but that is all the more reason for our leaders to be asked the questions. 

I understand that BBC bosses are now warning interviewers not to put ministers under pressure. Why on earth not? If the questioning is relevant and respectful, surely the tougher the better. All this stuff might be justified if we were at war. But we’re not. To talk of the virus as an enemy is to misunderstand the crisis with which we are faced. 

The state will survive. The question is how much it might have changed. The Chinese found a way of dealing with the virus. Nobody questioned it because they did not dare. 

That’s the way it always is under totalitarian rule. Do we really want that in Britain?  

Surely it is time for a modicum of common sense and some serious questioning of our lords and masters. If this lock down goes on much longer and if we are kept in the dark as to how and when it will be eased, far more people will die from associated causes than ever will be killed by the coronabug.

And God only knows what life will be like when we come out of it all.

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