After being locked down for more than two months, we’re now invited to step blinking into the sunlight. Well, some of us. Up to a point. However, and it’s not down to laziness but disorientation, we’ve developed a new syndrome. Fear Of Going Out or FOGO. As our Political Correspondent Peter Spencer reports, Boris Johnson’s attempt at loosening the message has hit snags.
‘Like this insubstantial pageant faded, leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little life is rounded with a sleep.’
For the ‘pageant’ the character Prospero was referring to in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, read – the world we thought we knew.
In its place something as dreamy as it is uncertain.
But let’s get a few things clear. When Bojo addressed the nation last Sunday he spelt out a new set of parameters.
It is now illegal to go to Wales. People in Scotland cannot visit English garden centres. Small groups might be able to meet in Northern Ireland that would get you arrested over the Irish Sea. Oh, and sunbathing is banned in Scotland.
Little wonder wags like Times sketch writer Quentin Letts weren’t awfully polite about it.
‘In some ways it felt like an Open University biology module. In others it was the headmaster giving us a stern warning about the dangers of the clap.’
Ok, we can get around a bit more, socialise a bit more, and must go back to work so long as it’s reasonably safe. Whatever that means.
Not a lot to most of us, judging by a YouGov poll for ITV’s Good Morning Britain.
Although almost two-thirds of those surveyed found the original stay at home edict clear, nearly three-quarters of them didn’t quite get the new suggestion they just stay alert.
The endlessly repeated criterion was and is ‘good, solid, British common sense’. How that works against a little understood and potentially fatal foe has yet to be explained.
Little wonder ministers are locking horns with unions, notably those representing teachers, who’re worried about whether their members should be afraid, or very afraid.
The chancellor’s announcement that he’d carry on paying most of most people’s wages until October was possibly made to head off this problem. Certainly, the gasp of surprise was quickly followed by a sigh of relief.
However, the prospect of the pandemic costing the Treasury a cool three hundred billion smackers this year has sparked dire warnings about tax rises, pay freezes and a nasty new bout of austerity.
Against that, massive compensation for slave-owners was judged a price worth paying to end the evil trade in the nineteenth century. World wars one and two also cost a bob or two. Yet we managed to put off repaying the last bits of the loans until just five years ago.
Ergo, the argument goes, long-term economic growth will after all take care of our coronavirus debts.
Another theory very much under scrutiny at present is the idea that so-called herd immunity is a busted flush.
Researchers at the University of Manchester are suggesting nearly a third of all Brits have already had Covid-19 and recovered, many having shown no symptoms in the first place.
This tallies with evidence that the bulk of those who’ve lost their lives to the virus had serious underlying health conditions, such as diabetes, dementia or diseased kidneys.
Bulk, in the build department, did Bojo no favours either during his brush with death. Which is why he’s now got a downer on the fuller figure.
The new statistics may explain perplexing findings about the rate of spread of coronavirus infection.
London is our biggest and most crowded city. So more people there should be passing it on to others more than anywhere else. Only common sense, surely?
Er, not. The capital’s infection rate is one of the lowest in the country, only half what it is in the north east and Yorkshire.
Why’s that then? Paul Birrell, the number cruncher who heads the University of Cambridge unit that’s done the sums has a theory.
‘London has seen sufficient infection that the very sharp drop we have seen in the number of deaths is to some degree attributable to a drop in the pool of susceptible individuals.’
Which sounds suspiciously like herd immunity.
Apparently not a prof thing to use two words when thirty-two will do, but you can’t miss the message. And it’s hopeful. Means the beastly thing will eventually die out after all.
A bit of help from humans might not go amiss, mind. But here too there’s some encouraging rustling in the undergrowth.
Public Health England has just given the green light to the antibody blood test developed by the Swiss drug company Roche.
It spots if people have had the virus but shown no symptoms. That’s reckoned to guarantee immunity for at least two years, meaning folk given the all-clear can return to normal life.
And so can everyone else, sooner than expected, if it’s confirmed big chunks of the population really have already been infected.
Little wonder officials are chomping at the bit to get it onstream within months, and Boris Johnson sees it as a potential game-changer.
Longer term, hopes are also looking up for a vaccine. The Oxford University team leading the way says results in tests on rhesus macaque monkeys are looking good.
Apparently they’ve shown solid signs of priming the creatures’ immune systems. And, animal lovers will be pleased to hear, have not produced any horrid side-effects.
Of course it’s early days, and as yet there’s no certainty it’ll work on us lot.
But the project’s leader, vaccinology professor Sarah Gilbert, gives it an eighty per cent chance, with definite results possibly as early as September.
If – and it’s a big if – if all goes well the British drug company AstraZeneca that’s working alongside the team is hoping to get a hundred million doses out by the end of the year.
Meantime, readers will feel enlightened to learn, the Palace of Westminster is still fretting about its own modus operandi.
Should it, MP’s are earnestly wondering, set an example to the nation by coming back to work, in person not just on screens?
Or, the counterargument runs, should it not be so bloody stupid?
On the whole, disturbingly to diehards, the digital system has worked annoyingly well.
That said, the best bits are always the worst bits. Like when the Tory MP Heather Wheeler wasn’t sure if the computer was saying yes or no to her addressing the chamber.
Concluding, apparently, that the answer was no, she expressed her disappointment in a good, solid British way.
What she said didn’t make it to the official parliamentary record, Hansard. But the mikes did clearly pick up the words ‘oh f***ing hell’.
The obvious thing to say. It’s only common sense, surely?
Peter Spencer has 40 years experience as a Political Correspondent in Westminster, working with London Broadcasting and Sky News. For more of his fascinating musings on the turbulent political landscape, follow him on Facebook & Twitter.
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