COVID-19: a nation divided

Britain is in crisis: the nation is deeply divided with a virulence not seen in living memory – since January in fact. COVID-19 has riven the country into two opposing camps:

  • The terrified;
  • The fed up.

However a third camp is making its presence felt:

  • The bullies

Which faction is in charge of events? Take a guess – it is as it ever was.

This is a frightening time for all the timid, hypochondriacs and conformists, and possibly for everyone who does not wander about with his or her head in the sand (if that s actually physically possible). For the fed-up, ah – can we just get back to normal? It’s not the Black Death, so imagine how we would be if it were – a sense of proportion, please, and do something about that nasty cough of yours – here, borrow my hanky.

For all natural bullies though, for the bullies – this is a heaven-sent opportunity to tell other people what to do. Now they have an excuse to look down their noses as neighbours. They salivate over nailing planks over people’s front doors like in the good old days of the Great Plague of London – Defoe has been flying off the shelves in Hampstead. There is exquisite pleasure in gaslighting the reluctant into believing their are personally responsible for killing thousands. Never has there been an opportunity like this since Brexit.

How long can this go on? For the terrified and the fed-up, it cannot end soon enough. For the bullies, let the plague roll on.

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Competitive panicking

There is no other explanation for the cycle of shutdowns. It has grown into a peaceful form of mass-hysteria: typical mass-hysteria involves uncontrolled weeping and wailing, maybe breaking into violence, but today we have mass resignation or perhaps a mass flop. It is but the result of those giving advice and warnings.

It is competitive panicking. Each overreaction creates its own bubble of new normality on which the next feeds and steps up to exceed it in an endless cycle. It seems like a form of virtue-signalling: panic signalling perhaps. It has made the nation fall silent and stifled all other thought. A pall lies over the land.

It would be tedious to recite all the ideas and scares thrown into the air about the current epidemic. It is a regrettable characteristic of our media-led public culture that many commentators, whether they understand the topic or not, have a need to make themselves heard, and they will say whatever is needed to achieve publicity. It is not for the public benefit but for their own. It is a form of what Hobbes called a “generall inclination of all mankind, a perpetuall and restlesse desire of Power after power, that ceaseth onely in Death.”

You may contrast the meek, almost reluctant mien of the Chief Medical Officer as he stepped unwontedly before the cameras.

Into this then step the politicians, rather unwillingly at first as no one wants to be closely associated with a deadly disease. (It is a curse of the National Health Service that as the government has taken responsibility for the health of every citizen, they can be blamed for every cough and sneeze, or in this case for an epidemic. That is a little harsh – most of the nation are not as daft as all that – but when the system strains and buckles, the blame is not far behind.)

These last weeks we have seen society transformed in the twinkling of an eye. The streets and workplaces are emptied and events big and small are cancelled, whether there is risk or reason or none. In addition, the whole breadth of the commentariat is so concentrated on this one circumstance, the Wuhan pneumonia epidemic, a feeling like a fog is over the nation. It is hard to equal. When Brexit dominated every political discussion, the streets were not emptied and the nation did not stay away from work and talk of nothing outside that context. The very dominance of this apparent threat has placed a stop on normal life.

Panic feeds more panic. The schools were not meant to be closed, but commentators craving publicity demanded it for so long that it seemed inevitable and I started hearing “when”, not “if”. Ultimately it was not that which closed the schools but mass staff absence – but why would half the teachers in a school disappear when the known numbers infected nationwide is about 300 in total out of 60 million? That is mass, irrational panic.

London started emptying before the government suggested working at home. Now thankfully office workers have the tools to be able to work from home, but others cannot, and gig-economy workers, the ones who make modern life possible, cannot feed their children, and all for an infection which has barely brushed this land yet.

Events and meetings are cancelled across the board – I am surprised when I find them still on. An email came today that all Parkruns are cancelled – but of all things, this is an event in the open air attended only by fit people with no lung problems – can there be an event with less of a risk? Cancelling runs harms health.

The hope I have heard expressed from organisers of all sorts of events is that this will not last, and that into the spring we will be back to normal. No, the epidemic will not have gone then and might just be starting to roar. Perhaps though by then we will all have got fed up with it and be going back to normal life, taking it on the chin and dispelling the panic because it cannot be allowed to let us starve.

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The necessity of normality

Members of Parliament are fleeing into isolation. The House has vital business before it. There must be a temptation to take political advantage to bypass Parliamentary norms. More than ever that must not happen.

Jacob Rees-Mogg is taking a robust, parliamentary view, and thank goodness of that. It is in the time that the system comes under most stress and temptation that it must show its strength.

The chamber of the Commons is a close-packed place (when there is a whip out or a chance to be on the telly), and the members are in frequent physical contact with the wider public, so the risk of infection across the whole political class is real. Some members have contracted the Wuhan pneumonia, and many members are vulnerable to its effects by reason of age, infirmity, diabetes or otherwise. From the outside it is hard to see how the meeting of Parliament can continue. If even village-hall keep-fit classes are being cancelled, the expectation would be that the foetid cockpit of Westminster would disperse too.

However, there has just been a budget, and a Finance Bill has to be pushed through or all taxes will expire. At some point the Armed Forces Bill will have to be passed or the army will be disbanded. Parliament must sit to pass these, as well as its normal business.

There is talk too of emergency powers, which is worrying: Tony Blair gave himself extensive emergency powers, which Act is still in place, and those are frightening in themselves without adding more just to be seen to be doing something. (Imagine how the Civil Service will gold-plate any emergency measure they can get Parliament to grant them.)

With so many away and the arithmetic in the House changing, it would be very tempting to push measures through the House which would not normally pass, and to use the excuse to pressurise the Opposition to stop opposing, in the national interest of course. Because that temptation is there, the man in the street is entitled to worry that the crisis will be abused to strip out democracy. For that reason, there must be all the more emphasis on following proper parliamentary norms, all the more involvement of all sides in the house and all parties.

When asked about the emptying House, the Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg might have purred and called for the government to obtain an enabling act to operate without this lamed parliament, but he did not. He emphasised the use of the pairing system, whereby a member may agree with a sick member on the other side “You cannot vote so I will not”, so maintaining the balance. That is crucial.

He also addressed emergency powers. Instead of salivating over new power to be jealously guarded, he said without question that any emergency powers must have a sunset clause; that they should have a natural expiry. During the War (and we are nowhere near such an emergency) there were extensive emergency powers granted to the government, and the new Attlee ministry elected in 1945 was very reluctant to give them up. Attlee’s Labour Party believed in planning and control of minutiae, and those old wartime powers could be used for that purpose in peacetime. It was not until Churchill was re-elected in 1951 that wartime rationing was ended.

In times of stress, and in times of blind panic, that is when the voice of opposition is most needed. It is needed not just from the opposition benches but from critical members regardless of party. For most of the year one might sail through with the House of Commons as a mere theatre for pre-decided decisions, but when actual thought and consideration are needed, when many alternatives and nuances will make all the difference, in short when there is a need for actual live debate – that is the very reason for having Parliament as we know it.

It was thought when the election result was in and Boris had his stonking majority that it would be full steam ahead on whatever policies Number 10 had in mind. That is no longer the case, during the epidemic. Those members are needed.

In short, democracy must be done, and democracy must be seen to be done.

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Why all medical advice is wrong

When I first wrote this post it was in a spirit of cynicism following panicked and incoherent responses to the COVID-19 epidemic. Now that the Chief Medical Officer has taken a hand, I see that has changed, and actual science and common sense are to prevail.

This is not enough for many commentators, who seem quite indignant that the best cure for a headache is to cut the patient’s head off and that anyone opposing that obvious course is either negligent or malicious.

I add these paragraphs, and the link below to the press conference, to acknowledge that in Britain at least there is now a sensible, principled response.

Why all medical advice is wrong, first draft:

In the individual case it is wrong –

  • Because doctors know that although the science is proven beyond doubt, the patient’s descriptions of himself and his symptoms are not.
  • Because diagnosis is an art, not just a science, relying on unreliable interlocutors and ambiguous signs;
  • Because patients do not speak in medical language;
  • Because a physician prescribes drugs but the body shapes its reaction around diet, and the two cannot be separated;
  • Because different metabolisms react in different ways;
  • Because patients do not follow to the letter the advise they are given.

Public legal advice is wrong –

  • Because it is given in general terms but the patients are individuals;
  • Because it cannot possibly say everything which should be said;
  • Because they don’t want to offend people who need to be offended on occasion for their own good;
  • Because overgeneralisation even unto dishonesty is the only way to get a message across to the public;
  • Because telling them everything would cause everyone to hide at home and no work would get done. Then we would all starve, which is unhealthy;
  • Because the alerts are written by civil servants, not medical experts.

My advice is wrong –

  • Because I am not a medical expert and am barely ever ill myself so don’t rely on anything I say; but at least I admit that.

I can be forgiven some cynicism. If you remember the MMR triple-vaccine scare, which still has not faded away, there was a lot of Public Health material to convince parents that the triple-jab is safe, as it is for most children. But I read the leaflets and also the background research papers and found discrepancies. I found out-and-out lies in the government material (no, the Danish study did not show that single jabs are identical in effect to the triple-jab as single jabs were not available in Denmark). The advice though was there to make a change in behaviour, not to tell the whole truth. That would be too complicated. The material was wrong but the conclusion was true, for most children.

Now we have the new Wuhan pneumonia, ‘COVID-19’, and the initial advice, before the experts on epidemics got hold of it, was not even coherent. That is unsurprising as the data is not available. There is a twofold thrust: to prevent the spread of the new disease by limiting the opportunities for infection, but also to stop panic and keep people going into work.

Thankfully, that has been taken in hand now in Britain, and practicality prevails in the new advice. It is not so abroad, where publicly pleasing panic measures seem to be preferred, defying the science and quite probably doing more harm than good.

Our own nation, being not so incontinently emotional, the panic buying is real in places, but mainly as a reaction to others emptying the shelves. That cannot last, as long as there are workers available to refill the shelves when the panic calms down. I hope.

A worrying thing is when a phrase becomes a buzzword, and that coming phrase is “self-isolation”. Now, in Italy we are told, everyone has gone home and stopped work (but these are Italians – will we even notice?) In Britain the dynamics are different. As the phase comes into the collective consciousness, it becomes a thing-to-do. Hang-on though: self-isolation is meant to be for those with a real risk of having been infected, not as a protection for that person but to stop him becoming a source of onward infection. Just going to bed for a fortnight and then emerging weakened into society ready to be infected is worse than useless. It may be hard to telling someone who has got it into their head that this is the thing to do. Until there is a proven vaccine, which will take months to develop as it is a living organism, the only way to stop yourself, ultimately, from being infected is to contract the disease and get through it, if you can survive it.

Let us pray that the reliable analyses are correct and that this is just another disease fatal to many but otherwise washing over the population like all the recent contagions, leaving a legacy of immunity in the population against future outbreaks. We shall see.

This is all meat to the Extinction Rebellion mob, who must be positively rejoicing at the idea that mankind is about to be wiped out as their prophetess has predicted. However getting people to stay in bed for weeks on end is not going to reduce the population – quite the contrary in fact.

Link to the press conference on 12 March 2020:

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