Former Supreme Court Judge LORD SUMPTION says Britons know a rudderless ship when they see one
King Canute did not actually command the tide to retreat from his throne, but Boris Johnson is having a very good go at it.
In February, at the outset of the current crisis, the Government was warned in clear terms by its scientific advisers that aggressive isolation policies would ‘merely push all transmission to the period after they are lifted, giving a delay but no substantial reduction in either peak incidence or overall attack rate.’
In other words, once Covid-19 has become endemic, locking people down or keeping them apart can spread the infections over a longer period but will not reduce them.
Lord Jonathan Sumption (pictured), an ex-Supreme Court judge has said the public is sick of the Government’s pointless and clumsy gestures during the coronavirus crisis
It followed that for these measures to have any appreciable effect over the long term, they would have to be kept permanently in place at ruinous economic cost until an effective vaccine became available. The warning came from Professor Neil Ferguson’s team at Imperial College. They repeated it a month later in the notorious statistical modelling report which panicked the Government into imposing the lockdown.
Across the world, this prediction is now being proved right. In Germany, hailed as the model state, infections are rebounding at a rising rate. The same is happening in Spain, France, Australia and other countries which had stricter or longer lockdowns than Britain. At the other extreme lies Sweden, whose policy has been grossly misrepresented by some UK media desperate to prove that it has failed.
Sweden practised a variety of distancing measures, but had no lockdown and never closed its schools or its bars and restaurants. Deaths in Sweden have been lower in proportion to their population than Britain’s and there is no sign yet of a second wave.
It would be unwise to draw overconfident conclusions from a history that has not yet played out. But these facts suggest some provisional conclusions.
The first is that there is very little that governments can do to arrest the spread of a highly infectious disease such as Covid-19, without putting our whole national life into cold storage. No society should want to do that. No society could afford to do it. All that governments can realistically hope to do is to prepare their health systems.
This is one area where the British Government did well. They started with seriously inadequate intensive care capacity but dramatically built it up in a remarkably short period of time. Public health systems were never overwhelmed, save briefly and locally, either in Britain or in Sweden.
In February, at the outset of the current crisis, the Government was warned in clear terms by its scientific advisers that aggressive isolation policies would ‘merely push all transmission to the period after they are lifted, writes LORD SUMPTION. Pictured: Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson (C), Britain’s Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty (L) and Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance speak during a coronavirus news conference, March 19
Secondly, the Government’s attempts to stop the spread of the virus by intrusive interference in the daily lives of healthy people has been profoundly damaging. They may have achieved something during the first six weeks or so when the NHS was building up its intensive care capacity, but that would have been unnecessary if the NHS had been properly prepared in the first place.
Otherwise the Government’s interventions have merely served to turn a crisis into a calamity, prolonging and magnifying its destructive economic, educational and social effects. The result in Britain is likely to be worse than in any other European country with the possible exception of Spain. It will be felt for years.
I write this in France, just after Mr Johnson’s announcement that anyone returning to England from France must endure 14 days quarantine. Travelling overseas is not ‘risk free’, is all that Downing Street can say to the hundreds of thousands whose holidays have been ruined. Of course it isn’t. Life is not risk free. But we can do without the extra risks artificially piled on by our Government’s clumsy, pointless and disproportionate gestures.
Medical staff and workers take part in a national ‘clap for carers’ to show thanks for the work of Britain’s NHS (National Health Service) outside of the ExCeL London exhibition centre, which was transformed into the ‘NHS Nightingale’ field hospital
France is experiencing an upturn of infections. England is likely to experience one, too, with or without quarantine. The reasons have nothing to do with the movements of travellers or tourists. It is the ordinary consequence of the fact that the virus is endemic in both countries. Its impact has merely been deferred by the lockdown earlier in the year.
In France, masks are seen almost everywhere, but social distancing has been a dead letter from the moment that the lockdown ended. The markets are crowded. Bars, cafés and restaurants are packed. Businesses and public services are operating normally. People have understood that it is not enough to be alive. You also have to live.
Before the pursed-lipped puritans and sour-faced control freaks start saying that the upturn serves them right, let us look at the facts. The figures published by the French public health agency show that the increase in infections is heavily concentrated in the age groups between 20 and 40.
The infection rate among the old has actually declined. This is exactly what ought to be happening. People in both groups are making rational risk assessments of their own. The young and healthy, for whom the symptoms are mild and the risk of death negligible, are getting on with their lives and making up for the weeks in which they were cruelly cooped up like battery hens.
People queue in line to check-in for a British Airways flight to Heathrow Airport on Friday at Nice airport, southern France
The old and vulnerable are shielding. The result is that the increase in infections has not been matched by an increase in either hospitalisations or deaths. This has happened without the need for laws to compel them or bossy Ministers to hector and upbraid them.
The same pattern has been observed by public health authorities in other countries which have experienced an upturn in infections since their lockdowns. They include the Netherlands, Belgium and Spain, which the British Government is now treating as if they were plague pits. And in places in England such as Preston and Leicester, which have seen local spikes and have been indiscriminately locked down for their pains.
This crisis has produced more than its fair share of idiotic slogans, but ‘Don’t kill Granny’ must rank as one of the most pernicious. It treats young people who are relatively invulnerable and are trying to live a normal life as if they were murderers. Of course Granny should be careful. She would probably be wise to isolate herself. But Granny is not heading for the beaches or going to raves.
Many other governments have made the same mistakes as ours. But most have emerged with a better reputation. The governments which have retained the confidence of the public have been those which have avoided high-flown rhetoric and knee-jerk responses. They have explained the risks to the public in measured terms. They have formulated a clear and properly thought-out policy at the outset and stuck to it.
In Britain, Ministers have lacked the moral courage and the political stature to do this. They have jumped up and down. They have charged from pillar to post. They have hurled slogans, threats and insults at us. They have tried to terrify us into compliance and then cajole us back to normality. They have made decisions on the hoof without any proper consideration of the economic cost, the social consequences or even the impact on other health issues. Until it was too late. They have been taken by surprise at every turn.
The public have lost respect for the messages from No 10. They are not fools, and know a rudderless ship when they see one.
Jonathan Sumption is a former Supreme Court judge and last year’s BBC Reith Lecturer.