Nicola Sturgeon and Boris Johnson are running out of road in the struggle against Covid-19, and it’s time to open up a wider debate, Alex Bell says.
Incoherent rules mean we’ve lost. The aim of zero Covid cases has slipped from view. Now Scotland balances economic and social concerns against medical ones. This may be reasonable, but we no longer have a clear objective. The latest set of rules suggest Covid isn’t to be defeated, but accommodated.
There was some media/political carping at the prime minister this week, suggesting his U-turn on working from home was a political gaffe. One moment we were all to return to city centres, then to stay away. This seems unfair – Covid is not like a tax he can control. If a virus spreads and he’s tried (his best?) to stop it, we should accept there may be reverses on the road.
The first minister has also U-turned, if that slur is to be slung. The top priority is not to vanquish Covid, as first stated, but to master it. That’s why a ban on house visits sits beside bars being open. One doesn’t make sense of the other, entirely, but it’s a compromise we will tolerate.
If our aim is blurred, it’s because we have failed. We didn’t follow all the rules. Humans never do. And governments in Edinburgh and London messed up on track and tracing. But then governments always make mistakes. The generals of bureaucracy fighting the last war.
Our failure is forgivable, and not absolute. Nicola Sturgeon says it’s not all been in vain. We have learnt so much about Covid, we have limited fatalities. She might also add that we are still going. The NHS staggers on and the economy splutters with fitful life. The last six months have won us wisdom and time.
Most importantly, there is still broad unity between people and government. The news of £10,000 fines for rule-breakers makes headlines, when the big story is how we dutifully plough on, respecting the instructions and each other. Popular ideas about ‘Broken Britain’ and a polarised society don’t seem so credible, or fundamental, now.
It is clear that Sturgeon is a lot better at this than the PM. Johnson is a bugle – limited notes from blowing hard – to the FM’s more nuanced instrument. She is also, as a rule, more severe in her policy. While the first quality is reassuring, it’s the second that counts. This will come down to what was done, not said.
Snakes and ladders
And on that, both leaders look weaker. There is a greater sense that Covid has the upper hand than before. We can accept that we had a good lockdown, and the virus may be less virulent, but it’s still here. We have done what Sturgeon and Johnson asked us, we have cut them slack for mistakes and we can see that the problem persists. A new phase, a second go for the second wave seems legitimate.
But we can also see that “following the science” is far more hit and miss than it sounds. If the science is snakes and ladders, then the legitimacy behind any policy driven by data is diminished.
Further, whether it is zero cases or moonshot testing, the authority of the government weakens when each bold target is missed.
Sturgeon and Boris are running out of road. This is not desperate – at the moment – or compromising to the national efforts – yet – but still true. I wish them both well, because it will mean we’ve come out the other end victorious. But I worry they are rummaging in the medicine cabinet for pills that are not there.
Come Christmas, the social and economic consequences will be topmost in people’s minds. The limits to freedom, the restrictions on fun, the loss of wages and the nauseating approach of debt. If there isn’t some evidence of progress against the virus, patience will wear thin.
Both leaders dismissed the idea of protecting the vulnerable while allowing the rest to take risks. The scientific advice is one person’s risk is a threat to us all (it spreads the virus). The political reckoning is that it’s unwise to divide the people.
No monopoly on wisdom
Yet Sturgeon and Johnson would benefit greatly from a wider debate. We have listened to the sermons from the podium. Yet it is clear that there is no monopoly on wisdom. By appearing as oracles, our leaders do us no service.
I am sure neither the FM or Johnson feels all powerful, but they should do more to include the rest of us in decision-making. Leading scientists like Hugh Pennington say the current policy is wrong. Let’s air that view. Critics say predictions of the virus doubling every week in England, as suggested by Whitty and Valance, are too gloomy. Let other experts explain that to us.
Johnson’s authority is on the wane. In contrast, Sturgeon looks good, but she too is running out of options. A third phase might snap the nation’s will. To preserve social unity, we need a wider debate on the options and more explanation of the science and the risks. Less podium, more talk.