When Boris Johnson came onto our televisions and announced the lockdown, the whole situation suddenly became a lot more real. No longer was this just something to mention alongside comments about the weather. No longer was it something that was just happening to others. Within the space of about a week, we went from singing songs while washing hands to not being able to leave the house other than for essential food shopping and one form of exercise a day. If it all feels very strange, that’s because it is.
This sort of reaction from democratic governments almost never happens. Just imagine if all this was happening without the threat of the coronavirus, with the government incrementally putting us under house arrest and only permitting certain public activity. Seeing videos of policemen on horses breaking up gatherings and hearing of drones flying around telling dog walkers they shouldn’t be out really brings home just how unusual this action from the government is. There is something distinctly Orwellian about these measures being rammed through over such a short timeframe.
When a party that founds itself on the protection of individual liberties is telling people off for sitting on a park bench, it suggests that this sort of imposition is sometimes necessary
And yet, it’s understandable. We are facing a huge threat that could take the lives of hundreds of thousands of Britons. We needed these measures and need them to be properly enforced. We might even need them to be strengthened over the coming weeks. But, this doesn’t stop them from sitting uneasily in the stomach of Britons. This is not a bad reaction to have. It’s part of our natural tendency to resist any sort of totalitarianism imposed upon us. These circumstances, however, require us to suppress this reflex.
The prime minister clearly wrestled with the same dilemma. He persisted for a long while with the line that we are a mature and free society and that people could be given advice, but that we shouldn’t resort to legally enforceable measures. A short while later and here we are. When a party that founds itself on the protection of individual liberties is telling people off for sitting on a park bench, it suggests that this sort of imposition is sometimes necessary. When Jacob Rees-Mogg (a man who prefers being told what to do by nanny than by a nanny state) is praising the government for these sorts of measures, one needs to realise that times like these put things in perspective.
Politicians cannot just follow the science as they will get left behind
Times like these show us the importance of government action. When all is going well, it might not be so obvious that the government is worthy of our taxes. It is in hard times when they are looked to for support from parts of the population who don’t usually do so. Whether it be to make up their lost income, provide them with food parcels, build them new emergency hospitals, or more generally to try to prevent the spread of the virus as best as possible. It brings to the fore why good government is so necessary. Perhaps when all this is over, people will gain some perspective and instead of moaning about every little thing they think the government should be giving them, remember what it did for them when it really mattered.
It shines a light on the job of politicians like never before. The age-old saying goes: ‘advisers advise, ministers decide’. This ought to be remembered in this time of crisis, both by the politicians it refers to and the public looking on. As much as Boris might like to stick to the line that he is following the science, the science only takes one so far. It can model the pandemic, make predictions about its spread, and simulate what might happen if certain measures are taken; it is invaluable in this respect. What it cannot do is pull the trigger, so to speak. Politicians cannot just follow the science as they will get left behind. When all the science has been considered, they are the ones who need to step up, weigh the sides of the problem and make the decisions.
Whilst playing politics at this time would be ineffective and insensitive, doing politics has rarely been quite as important.