‘There is More to Life than the Absence of Disease’

For those familiar with this blog over the last 15 months, you will be aware of my views about the futility of the UK Government’s de facto Zero-Covid policy, and the undermining of liberal democracy and the huge public health burden of Collateral Covid that follows from this ‘risk eradication’ policy. And also familiar with my astonishment at acquiescence of the academic left in this full-frontal assault on the young, the poor and on Parliamentary democracy. (See here for a rare exception).

Now, following a further “temporary” extension of the UK’s lockdown announced yesterday, I reproduce Iain Martin’s editorial at Reaction which captures much of my deep frustration with this latest example of what it is like to live in an iatocracy (‘rule by physicians’) than a democracy. It shows the dangers of the naive mantra of “following the science”, “respecting the numbers” — as though scientific facts, as though numbers, can speak for themselves without human mediators who, of course, import their own political and ethical views into how the numbers, the facts, should be interpreted. (The dangers of this naive and dangerous “appeal to science” is something I have spent over a decade pointing out with respect of climate change … here, for a recent blog essay).

21 June delay disaster – can parliament please intervene?

At this rate, Covid restrictions in Britain will lift just in time for the government’s announcement of its next lockdown. The plan to reopen on 21 June looks like a goner this weekend. Briefings from Number 10 ahead of Monday’s formal decision suggest a delay of four weeks, taking us into late July, but please don’t hold your breath for that late July reopening. By then who knows what fresh scares will have been conjured up in Whitehall that can be run past voters in opinion polling and focus groups and then recycled in government propaganda amplifying the original fear, thus continuing the cycle of fear and doom?

Knowing the pliability of parts of public opinion, big government will be busy thinking already about what restrictions it can introduce in September, so it would not be surprising if it decides in a few weeks not to take the risk on making August normal life with variants out there. Today it is the Indian variant, in Britain early after the government declined to shut down travel from India. By September, what will be the next horror?

On variants, we are paying the price for the extraordinary advances in genomic sequencing. This is the first epidemic or pandemic where this technology has been so advanced and readily available. The upside is we know more about the development of this disease. The downside is that we know it quickly and it is easy to be spooked by every fresh report, chart or study that has not yet been peer-reviewed.

This creeping variants narrative is powerful and easy for governments with access to the “bully pulpit” to proselytise and a large advertising budget. You can hear it being said: best be safe, might as well keep the restrictions this summer, and then – who knows? – until early summer 2022 what with the winter being cold and everything.

This accords with the most ludicrous phrase of the entire crisis: no-one is safe until everyone is safe. This is parroted repeatedly by politicians when its inherent implausibility should be obvious, especially with Covid, a disease that will likely be with us for a long time. No guarantee of perpetual safety, from this disease or thousands of deadly diseases, can ever be constructed that means everyone on earth is safe. While it has proved possible to eradicate certain diseases, that has not happened in a vacuum with the suspension of normal life and humanity hiding underneath the stairs for decades. New diseases and mutations emerge, we adapt and life goes on, or it should do.

I promise I hadn’t planned to write about cursed Covid-19. I was actually half way through writing for you Reaction subscribers (thank you) about the talented but baffling Rishi Sunak. Who is he really, what does he believe, and what happens to him now that the arc of his story is not bending towards Number 10, because Boris Johnson wants to be there for 10 years? I’ll return to that subject soon.

But news of the Covid delay landed with a thud from Cornwall, and here we are, pondering the latest manifestation of this terrified government’s inability to weigh risk properly and form a balanced view of disease and what life in a civilised society is about.

The point of life in a free society is not the avoidance of death. In a survival situation, such as the Holocaust or Stalin’s camps, the avoidance of death is very much the point and the survivors talk about it in those terms, but over and again in their testimonies they emphasise that the impetus beyond survival was getting the chance to live, to live properly, the spur to do more than survive.

The pandemic is not that. Although Covid is a terrible disease, it is one disease among many. At some point in this cycle we will have to live with it and return to life in a free society, which involves risk.

Every day we each take hundreds of risks – with our health, wellbeing and personal safety. We weigh these risks instinctively, often unconsciously or in under a second, and mediate it via a complex process involving personal choice, free will, morality, law and peer pressure.

In lockdown land, that is replaced with government by decree, with us waiting for instruction from central command on whether more than six of us can meet indoors to break bread and make conversation.

Such is the terror of this Indian variant that the game goes on, even when Britain has a highly successful vaccine programme and the government can claim a wondrous success. As of Friday, 29,165,140 Britons have had both doses and 41,088.485 have had one dose. All of those in the most vulnerable categories were vaccinated some time ago, or were offered vaccines. Some chose not to take it, a dud decision for which the rest of us cannot be expected to put life on hold. 

That programme of vaccination, and the long period of restrictions we put up with, were in return, we were told, for the normalisation of life or as near as possible. Now, it seems not.

To make matters worse, the British government, or its department of health in England, is not even consistent in communicating the authoritarian decisions that go on month after month. It zig-zags.

As Tory MP Mark Harper pointed out last night, a few days ago the government was saying that weddings would be spared from the extension of restrictions. Now, it seems they will not, and even if they are eventually following a backlash that scares newly-wed Boris, days of uncertainty lie ahead before on Monday at the Number 10 podium the Prime Minister puts on his grave face and tells us all our fate.

This will be with the help of some graphs and advice from scientists who are conditioned now to be ultra-cautious on domestic reopening. They know the public inquiry is coming and they will never be accused there of over-reacting, but under-reacting and then being questioned about it later by a QC will land them on the 10 o’clock news and tarnish their reputation.  

For me, as with many people, the personal inconvenience involved in the latest delay on reopening is small if annoying. In my case, several social gatherings with the Reaction team and friends planned for late June and July will be impossible.

For many others, the cost is going to be much higher. Not only have tens of thousands of couples wanting to get married made their plans, the businesses that needed their trade have plotted reopening, booked in staff, prepared venues and placed orders. The Conservative party used to be the party of small business. Can its leadership not see how damaging this stop-start, reverse-go, routine is and how thin patience has been worn?

In the headline of this newsletter I asked if parliament might intervene and force a rethink. It is a forlorn hope, I fear. The government has the legislation it needs and sufficient votes to get more of what it wants to keep strengthening executive power to deal with Covid. There are MPs – like Mark Harper, or former Brexit Secretary David Davis – who see how sinister the erosion of parliament is, and the troubling accumulation of coercive state power under the cover of the crisis. They are a minority.

While the hope is forlorn, I do hope they and others across the parties at least try to fight back next week. Try to restore some sense when the executive arm of the system is hooked on wielding power and exerting control.

Theresa May put it well last week. I’m not in the habit of quoting May approvingly after the Brexit imbroglio, but the former Prime Minister has emerged as an impressive parliamentarian. It was a sensible decision to stay on in the Commons and not abandon her seat at the last election. This week, May spoke with such clarity on the government’s position in relation to the rules on travel – although the point applies more generally about the mentality of the Prime Minister and the overdue need to level with the public about Covid.

“We will not eradicate Covid-19 from the UK,” she said. “There will not be a time when we can say there will never be another case of Covid-19 in this country. Secondly, variants will keep on coming. There will be new variants every year. If the government’s position is that we cannot open up travel until there are no new variants elsewhere in the world, then we will never be able to travel abroad ever again. And the third fact that the government needs to state much more clearly is that sadly people will die from Covid here in the UK in the future, as 10-20,000 people do every year from flu.”

May went on: “It is incomprehensible, I think, that one of the most heavily vaccinated countries in the world is one that is most reluctant to give its citizens the freedoms those vaccinations should support.”

Hear, hear.

Iain Martin
Reaction Editor
and publisher