It is now just shy of 24 hours since Boris Johnson told us to carry on as normal.
Public transport is deserted, pubs and restaurants are closing down, the football’s cancelled, the rugby’s off – and it has to be acknowledged that the government’s “nudge unit” has played a blinder.
It has come in for a fair bit of criticism, the Behavioural Insights Team, to give it its proper name, for seeming to be behind the UK having a wildly different coronavirus battle plan to the rest of the world, but credit where credit’s due.
It can only have been the nudge unit’s idea to get the least trusted man in the nation’s history to tell us that any kind of mass public lockdown would be counterproductive at this stage. Because 20 minutes later, it was immediately like I Am Legend out there.
It is well known in behavioural psychology circles that people are far more likely to keep to rules they have set for themselves than those that are imposed on them from the top down, so deploying Johnson to instil the required levels of blind panic by telling everyone there’s no need to panic is truly a stroke of genius.
Ireland, Germany, Poland, France, Spain, Belgium… the list of countries now living under some kind of restrictions goes on. But it is only right here that everywhere is on self-imposed lockdown without the need for any heavy-handed government intervention at all.
We can only wonder what will happen when we move into the next stages of the crisis.
“Prime minister, we have reached the tipping point. The contagion cannot be stopped. We must activate Operation Bermuda Shorts.”
“Righto. What’s that again?”
“It’s simple. You say everything’s fine, that the virus has gone away, and to prove it, you go on a series of pointless, contrived early morning runs through some of the worst affected areas, dressed, of course, in your usual, attention-grabbing Save the Children sportswear.”
“And you’re sure that’ll work?”
“Oh yes. All our research indicates that the only way to alleviate the now intolerable strain on the NHS that you spent 10 years stripping bare is to make even those in desperate need of treatment too frightened to leave the house. Only a clear statement from you that the crisis is over can achieve that at this stage.”
“And what about when the crisis is actually over?”
“What do you mean?”
“You know, when we actually do want people to start going back to work? What will we do then?”
“Ah yes. I see. That could be difficult. Prime minister, do you think you’d be any good at faking a cough?”
At this point, I suppose I must ask, who the hell do I think I am? This is the greatest public health emergency in a hundred years. It is no laughing matter.
Laughing at Brexit was a way to survive it. Laughing at coronavirus will be much, much harder. Not least as many people, frankly, will not survive it.
Already, many of the prime minister’s fiercest critics are now of the view that he must be afforded respect, for no reason beyond the enormity of the task he now faces.
There is surely no one who wishes anything other than for Johnson to succeed, but success and respect are not the same. In the case of the latter, that boat has long since sailed.
Weeks ago, in Italy and elsewhere, there was a public urge to treat coronavirus as if it were some kind of west-hating terrorist, that the way to show defiance was to carry on with life as normal.
Two weeks ago, Nicola Zingaretti, the leader of Italy’s Democratic Party, posted a picture of himself, having an early evening drink in a Milan restaurant, alongside the words, “we need normality”.
Zingaretti is now in isolation having contracted coronavirus.
There is no doubting all this will utterly change how we live, what we do, completely, and quite right too. A contagion cannot be cowed through the best public sentiment. The price for realising that too late has been very high indeed.
But it doesn’t necessarily have to change who we are. At least not yet.
The right to toilet paper may already have been lost.
The right to laugh, well, someone will have to pry it from my cold, dead, fastidiously washed hands, ideally with soap and hot water while singing “Happy Birthday” twice.
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