On Monday we will know precisely where this is going. The leaks and rumours, the briefings and counter-briefings to the media, the contradictory statements from scientific advisers and the endless speculation will all be over. The Government, in the person of the Prime Minister himself, will tell us exactly how – if not necessarily when – this is going to end. Or maybe not.
In anticipation of this momentous official pronouncement which may – or may not – bring about a promise of liberation that makes the events of the past year fade away, it might be useful to ask, for one final time, the most pertinent questions. How on earth have we got to the point where a government of any complexion in a liberal democracy is about to give us permission (or maybe not) to embrace our loved ones, meet a friend for lunch or emerge from home for something other than a purpose it deems to be essential? That is the big one but there are some smaller questions too about the unprecedented experiences of this astonishing period.
When did it become acceptable, indeed a routine expectation, that experts serving on government bodies as official advisers during a national emergency, should feel free to appear regularly on the media expressing their personal opinions on contentious matters of public policy? Surely this should be regarded as quite irregular – if not improper. And yet, neither government ministers nor their Opposition shadows (who may find the resulting confusion helpful), appear to have made any adverse comment about this.
So we must assume that, for one reason or another, the Government was either happy for contradictory opinions from its own advisers to be fed into the public domain – or that it was powerless to stop it. If the latter is true then that is very bad news. It suggests that this Government has had no agreed position – that it was at odds with itself or hopelessly indecisive – and therefore unable to exercise any authority over its own appointees.
That interpretation seems to fit with the testimony of Dame Angela McLean, the chief scientific adviser at the Ministry of Defence, who told the parliamentary Science and Technology Committee last week that scientists were “crying out” for some clarity from ministers on when this crisis would be deemed to be over. They (the scientists) knew, she said, that this was not for them to decide. This is rather at odds with a prevailing view that it is the scientists who are running the show and that the Government’s shifts are attributable to the experts “moving the goalposts”.
But what if the former answer was the right one? Is it conceivable that this apparent chaos in which highly placed experts on committees appointed directly or indirectly by ministers were openly disagreeing with Government analysis, and with each other, was not only acceptable to Downing Street but actually encouraged by it? After all, if the scientists are offering an array of differing opinions and prognoses, then doesn’t that give ministers a useful choice of options which can all be described as being based on “the science”?
Even more cynically, might Downing Street be finding it quite helpful when statements emanating from seemingly apolitical experts can see off the threats of avowedly political interests – like the public sector unions? There was an interesting case of this last week with regard to the vaccines, when Professor Wei Shen Lim, chairman of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), stated unequivocally that priority being given by age would save more lives than giving higher priority to other groups – like teachers or the police, for example. This testimony from a scientific adviser was worth its weight in gold to a Government that does not want to have to take on public sector interest groups in a nasty fight.
So maybe, all things considered, letting scientists blurt things out when they feel like it, is quite a brilliant news management strategy. The trouble is that it has been messing with people’s minds in a dangerous way. Those at home who are praying for release, and even those others who are now so gripped by terror that they no longer crave freedom, do not know who to believe. The state of confusion and open disagreement among those who are supposed to be in charge – in which the world-beating vaccine programme is being celebrated one day only to be downplayed as a harbinger of a return to normal life, the next – is genuinely driving the country crazy.
Sometimes it seems almost sadistic in its inconsistency and self-contradiction, giving with one hand and taking away with the other. If this is a deliberate political tactic, it is unforgivable. If it actually is what it looks like – a fatal lack of confidence and chronic inability to make serious decisions, then the future even after the pandemic looks bleak. For a government under pressure to be both authoritarian and indecisive is deeply alarming.
Boris Johnson has made much of his promise that the winding down of these repressive measures will be “irreversible”. By which he clearly means that they will never be repeated. At least, that is what I hope he means. So just to avoid any ambiguity, I would like to hear him say something to that effect. This has been a social experiment that must never be repeated, not only because of the truly awful suffering that it caused and the collateral damage which will become clear only over a period of years – but because what was done was inimical to the most basic principles of a free country.
There should be, in that message to the nation, an explicit acknowledgement that a British government went somewhere it never expected to go and tested the limits of hereditary freedoms in ways that its people would never have dreamt possible. That this was in response to a unique event that had devastating consequences, and that it was done with the consent of a willing and generous population, will be understood. But there must be an open admission of the gravity of what happened to the relationship between government and people over this dreadful year – and a promise that, as things return to normal, that will too.
— to www.telegraph.co.uk