Friday was the day when the coronavirus pandemic began to radically redraw the map of everyday life in Britain. Bill Shankly, Liverpool’s much-loved manager in the 1970s, is fondly remembered for suggesting that football was more important than matters of life and death. It would have been a joke, of course. But the decision to suspend the Premier League until 4 April is a potent symbol of the new abnormality that will characterise the weeks and months to come. Slowly but surely, Britain’s social life is being put on hold. The postponement of May’s local elections signals the end of politics-as-usual as well.
Millions of people are now facing difficult dilemmas and painful decisions. Across the country, some care homes have begun to close their doors to relatives. Many people this weekend will be thinking twice about planned trips to see vulnerable elderly family members, whose wellbeing is intimately linked to such visits. Soon these may not be possible for an indefinite period. A kind of stasis, shadowed by deep anxiety, awaits us, and the scale of what is to come is unknowable.
The decision to suspend the Premier League followed the news that the Arsenal manager, Mikel Arteta, and a Chelsea footballer, Callum Hudson-Odoi, had both tested positive for coronavirus. On Thursday, Boris Johnson and his chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, both reiterated the government view that there were no medical grounds to ban sporting events. The football community went ahead and shut down stadiums anyway. Outside the confines of Whitehall, organisations and individuals appear to be outpacing the government’s strategy for managing the pandemic.
There is understandable concern that the approach of Mr Johnson, Sir Patrick and the chief medical officer, Prof Chris Whitty, is too minimalist. Britain has become an outlier in its approach to the crisis. The government’s advice remains, for now, that those presenting symptoms of the disease should self-isolate for a minimum of seven days. Schools have been allowed to stay open, partly to enable key workers to stay at work. Leaving aside beleaguered Italy, where a national lockdown is in place, Germany, France, Ireland and the Netherlands have all taken much tougher measures to ensure social distancing. China’s drastic measures in Wuhan came at significant human cost but, according to official figures, the number of new cases has plummeted this week and authorities say they believe the outbreak has passed its peak.
Experts, like the rest of us, have no access to infallible truths in unprecedented crises. The stakes could scarcely be higher, but the scientific bets being laid involve judgments, not certainties. The government, advised by Sir Patrick and Prof Whitty, believes that drastic action to suppress coronavirus could store up bigger problems down the line, when measures are relaxed. Therefore, they judge the least-worst outcome for the country will be a managed epidemic which peaks gradually, so that the NHS is not overwhelmed, and creates “herd immunity” to what could become an annual virus. There is also concern that forcing people into more isolated lives too soon could be counterproductive. Sir Patrick has predicted that the epidemic’s peak in Britain could still be 10 to 14 weeks away; too much isolation too soon could lead to coronavirus “fatigue”, causing people to revert to old ways at precisely the wrong moment.
That may or may not be an accurate prediction. But the existential reality on the ground is beginning to render the hypotheses of behavioural science irrelevant. Gatherings of all kinds are being cancelled and home-working strategies are being implemented. It might soon become desirable for the government to go with the grain and help direct a clear public appetite to do what it takes to minimise the impact of the inevitable.
Levels of austere self-discipline known only in wartime may soon be required in the spring sunshine. Sadly, in this crisis, community spirit will be best expressed by keeping a distance from neighbours. It is a grim prospect. But as a form of national hibernation begins, it is at least reassuring that many of us seem ready to make the sacrifices that will have to be made.
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