Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Democratic leaders everywhere are trying to come to terms with a completely unprecedented global pandemic for which there is no pre-ordered game plan, and whatever they do their critics complain. It’s either too much government intervention or too little.
In reality, in every heart of government, there is careful and serious debate, albeit behind closed doors, around whether the cure is worse than the disease. That morbid arbitrage between saving lives now but ruining the lives of future generations cannot be aired in public for fear of the howls of anguish that would follow. We see echoes of it even now in the political chatter around this government’s stance.
I am delighted that our government does not relish the idea of enforcing lockdowns by statute: even in war, this country shied away from anything as draconian as stopping people going to the pub. But new threats call for new action. The contrast with those regimes such as China, Russia and, sadly, Brazil is stark. There, policies of lies, distortion and vicious repression have led to many more deaths than have ever been disclosed and, in China’s case, to the epidemic in Wuhan turning into a global pandemic.
The crisis has, of course, uncovered many hitherto undiscovered armchair experts on social media who are happy to tell us how they know better than the Chief Medical Officer. Thankfully the rest of the world gets on with more important issues like how to get self-raising flour or a decent haircut. All democratic governments should be held accountable. It is a fundamental right in an open and free society. But a feature of this unique episode in all our lives has been the distance between what virtually every broadcaster and journalist seems to think and what sensible people living as ordinary a life as they can, believe.
My own view is that Boris Johnson has done a surprisingly good job in the current circumstances. As a former London Mayor he knows that getting London back on its feet is important to the whole country. He also knows that London’s population and transport densities make the balance between resuming economic activity and maintaining public safety particularly difficult to get right, and has invited his successor Sadiq Khan to COBRA meetings.
Bizarrely, his having contracted the dreaded viral mugger has only enhanced his reputation as a likeable, relatable human being – and for all his manifold weaknesses, that is what the Prime Minister is. He’s also a genuine social liberal who believes that government should seek to persuade where necessary and also try at all costs not to dictate. His speech on Sunday evening was all about common sense: observing social distancing, not taking unnecessary risks and not being foolhardy.
To me and millions like me, the advice not only made sense but could not have been clearer. Only in the media and opposing political parties is there this phoney outrage about any lack of clarity. It is perfectly reasonable for Nicola Sturgeon and Keir Starmer to criticise. They are The PM’s political opposition, and it is their job to try to undermine confidence in the Conservative government. But I am struck by how this plays outside the media bubble.
Most people recognise the sense of what Johnson and Dominic Raab are saying and will act accordingly. They wouldn’t go to the pub, even if it was open and, sadly, they aren’t yet ready to eat out or go to the movies. They don’t blame the government because they instinctively know there are no easy answers. They just want themselves and their families to be safe.
Steve Norris was the Conservative Party candidate for London Mayor in 2000 and 2004. He is also a former transport minister. Follow Steve on Twitter.
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