A woman sits on a bench by the Thames. Two policemen arrive and tell her to stand up. Two boys remove their shirts in Holland Park. They are told to put them back on. A policeman shouts at two girls in bikinis on Primrose Hill to get dressed. How dare they enjoy themselves.
You can crowd a London Tube train but not climb a Welsh mountain. You can drive to a country footpath, but only if the walk takes longer than the drive. Michael Gove will allow you out “just for an hour”.
The trouble with official curbs on personal freedoms is that they degenerate into idiot authoritarianism. Rules become ever more pernickety, because their enforcers regard mere enjoyment as abuse. Gove’s directorate is like The Handmaid’s Tale, if not Oliver Cromwell. The latter’s blue laws similarly told women how to dress, and banned walks, pubs, plays, sports and the celebration of festivals. To unbridled power, the only lawful activity is one “necessary” to the security of the state.
Is pleasure really unnecessary and happiness a menace? This week’s superb BBC Four documentary on Oxford’s Young Rembrandt exhibition, narrated off-screen by Simon Schama, left me delighted but baffled. Why can I crowd Oxford’s supermarkets but not its Ashmolean Museum? Why are people trusted to “socially distance” in a DIY shop but not in a garden centre or a National Trust park? My local hardware store can sell from its front door, but not my local pub.
Only time will tell whose model of coronavirus was correct, and which government’s means of combating it was most effective. Out of a sort of desperation, we have all become statistical nerds, and we strive to be objective. I remain on the side of the Swedes Johan Giesecke and Anders Tegnell (and Boris Johnson mark one), and against Britain’s Neil Ferguson (and Johnson mark two). The former seem to reflect common sense and behavioural science, the latter mathematical dogma and worst-case scenarios. Sweden’s deaths per million, at 244, are currently well behind Britain’s, at 384.
I am equally drawn to the Oxford geographer Danny Dorling’s intriguing research suggesting that coronavirus not only peaked in mid-April but appears to follow a similar trajectory everywhere, seemingly regardless of local policy and probably with similar fatality rates. The big difference will be in the collateral damage of their various forms of lockdown.
As the Swedish scientists point out, this is a peculiar virus in that its overwhelming – though not most publicised – impact is in exacerbating existing illnesses in old people. This is 80-90% of deaths. Many are already “locked down” in care homes and hospitals. It would therefore make sense to direct all energy at protecting and trying to cure them. Yet while Britain was playing at The Handmaid’s Tale, it was leaving care homes to look after themselves, to an appalling extent in those known to me.
For most other people – children, young people, even the middle aged – the risk of fatality, though tragic, is statistically minimal. Countries that have trusted people to observe voluntary distancing have not seen radically different fatalities from countries that have been draconian. Sweden’s victims have been overwhelmingly in already locked-down care homes, not in the general population. The same has been true in voluntarist Germany.
I can accept that, with an unknown and lethal disease, some application of the precautionary principle should apply. But even then, it would make sense to relate lockdown to relative risk, if only to minimise harm to the nation’s wider, non-Covid-19-related, physical and mental health. One-size-fits-all lockdown abuses any concept of priority. Hence 18,000 possible extra cancer deaths are now predicted.
Britain’s failure – unique in Europe – to involve its local government in lockdown decisions or remedial measures has clearly been a serious error. It delayed action on protective equipment, as well as on testing and chasing. To have to call in the army rather than use local councils and officials was crass. It will clearly impede the local easing of lockdown. I have still seen no good argument for keeping schools closed, just mindless Downing Street dogma.
One size never fits all. Just as Covid-19 is selective, so surely can be the escape from it. The risk of infection is known to be greater in cities than elsewhere. So liberate the counties and countryside. The risk is greater indoors, so liberate outdoor trading. The risk is greater to the vulnerable old, so stop stifling the social and economic activities of the young. If you liberate high-risk Tube trains and supermarkets, why not low-risk playgrounds, public footpaths, pub gardens and local churches?
If there really is a second peak – and there is always a risk – then we should be like Germany, and face it when it occurs. Meanwhile there is no question of a risk to lives and livelihoods in prolonging lockdown: that is a certainty.
Britain has not been exceptional in much, except in its refusal to inform and debate with the public over lockdown. It has behaved like an old-fashioned centralist bureaucracy, with ministers and officials mouthing slogans and giving orders. What is the matter with the government? Why can’t we sit on a bench?
• Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist