Chris Whitty is right: we’re in trouble.

When we hear the most hysterical voices on the matter of next week’s unlocking proclaiming it’ll be a mirror image of the last few times, with an imminent plunge into full lockdown and near overwhelming of the NHS, it needs baring in mind this is more a case of recency bias than a pragmatic conclusion; we’re used to this happening, and it would happen, if not for the fact we have a very broad base of vaccine coverage as of right now, and it’s only increasing. So yes, plenty can go wrong, particularly going into winter, but it won’t take the form of previous fiascos because we’re in a different phase of Britain’s pandemic management.

As time has gone on it has become painfully clear there is no such thing as caution at the top of government when it comes to the pandemic, even now when we were so close to being able to unlock safely and all but guarantee an end to these in and out lockdowns. But no, ideology has taken over, because we have an Ayn Rand obsessed Health Secretary who’s conception of individual over collective freedoms is positively Dickensian, and a Prime Minister both too spineless to U-turn and too drenched in libertarian cliché to consider it. We’re in a right mess and there’s no clear way out of it that this government would consider taking.

According to the Spectator, Johnson is now at least to an extent privately regretting unlocking and can’t see a way out where he can save face. The reason for this case of cold feet from the PM is clear: the numbers are horrendous, tonnes of scientists think we’re walking into a disaster, and the NHS app is pinging so many people factories look set to literally shut down over the summer if this continues on its current course, as Steve Turner put it last night. We’re deep in the soup and the PM doesn’t know what to do.

The ironic thing is if there were some more guardrails put in place (masks, distancing in certain situations etc), to save most of the unlocking on Monday then the public would understand, provided the government levelled with them and told them if they didn’t do this we’d run the risk of having to backtrack again, and we needed more time to build up immunity with the vaccines. Johnson is once again putting his own political skin above public health, since he knows he could sell this to the public, and he knows he could pass it (or anything like it) on Labour votes in the commons. He won’t do it because there would be a mass revolt from his own MPs, and he’d run the risk of being internally ousted in the Tory party as leader and as Prime Minister in favour of a libertarian like Rishi Sunak.

This is unforgivable. There is seemingly an acknowledgement at the top of government that what’s happening is a disaster, and yet they’re pressing ahead because they’d find it embarrassing or damaging to backtrack. These are people manifestly unfit to be anywhere near any position of power, as again and again they’ve show us over the last 11 years that the priority is always internal Tory party politics, and never the actual job of governing a country. Has there ever been a party that’s this inward looking but continually wins elections? Tory politics since the 1990s has been a psychodrama of warfare over Europe played out in public, and now it’s war over, of all things, pieces of cloth we wear to stop spreading a deadly virus to one another. Good to see the quality of public debate in this country really reaching new lows everyday.

I still don’t see the likelihood of a summer lockdown (although these next few weeks could surprise us all), what I do see is a summer of millions isolating and of young people suffering with long COVID, and this becoming a potentially disastrous pileup of COVID, influenza, variants, long COVID, and NHS fatigue over winter and the government being totally unable and unwilling to get us out of the mess. The paradigms of what may or may not happen remain very different in this post-vaccination situation, than pre-vaccination when you’d have tens or hundreds of thousands dying; right now, that seems impossible, save transmission and on a scale we can’t foresee of a vaccine overriding variant that doesn’t yet exist.

The headline in the Mirror today is “Chris Whitty warns England could be plunged back into lockdown curbs in just 5 weeks”, and when I saw this last night that’s when I began to think we could be in even worse trouble than we imagined. We knew this was risky and could very well backfire, but cases are going up extremely quickly and nerves are being fried in the Health department right now. Whitty says in 5–8 weeks the PM may need to “look again” at restrictions, and that both cases and deaths are repeatedly doubling, meaning (according to him) the NHS could be in trouble in ways we didn’t foresee quicker than we expected.
Quite a shocking intervention from someone not known to get these things wrong often, and not known for overriding the government all too often. We’re in trouble, and government is running out of time to salvage this.

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Toby Lipatti-Mesme

Toby Lipatti-Mesme

Insightful and innovative UK journalism and commentary, from Toby Lipatti-Mesme.