In February of this year I enjoyed a short break overseas with a good friend. Nothing very special, just three days in the Ardennes, based in the northern Luxembourg countryside but also visiting neighbouring parts of Belgium and Germany. At the time neither of us knew it would be our last overseas trip of the year – it is interesting to speculate what I would have chosen as my last overseas holiday if I had known in advance about the impending pandemic, but whatever it would have been, I doubt Luxembourg in February would have featured that high on the bucket list!
For all that, it was an interesting holiday on a number of fronts. Firstly, one cannot but notice the sheer wealth of this part of the EU. Luxembourg in particular has prospered mightily from the 75 years of peace and co-operation, and the whole area shows it. Neat tidy towns, well‑kept countryside, good facilities and infrastructure, excellent restaurants. But also, one sees how recent this prosperity is. All across the region there are memorials and memories of the Second World War, and in particular of the Ardennes Offensive – this area, and the land around the town of Bastogne in particular, was the battleground for what became known as the Battle of the Bulge, Hitler’s last big counter-attack in the West in the winter of 1944.
From late 1939, Belgium endured 5 years of war and occupation, but by October 1944 the country was largely liberated and the Belgian people had begun to try to rebuild their lives. Life, while far from normal, was no longer existentially threatened. And then, for the people of eastern Belgium, the nightmare returned. In the excellent war museum at Bastogne, by the US Mardasson War Memorial, there is one very telling statistic: there were more suicides in Bastogne in the two months of the Battle of the Bulge than in the whole of the rest of the War.
And looking back, 9 months later, what strikes me is the similarities between that campaign and our position now, as we enter Lockdown 2.0. Of course, I would not be as insensitive as to claim that our current position, confined as we are to our homes again but otherwise largely safe, compares remotely in terms of either physical safety or mental stress to the situation faced by the people of eastern Belgium as they were caught up in the renewed fighting. But the sense of “we thought this was behind us” and “we have to do this all over again” is not dissimilar.
This psychology is I think is the biggest challenge the peoples of Europe face – all the peoples of Europe, for it is not just a UK phenomenon. All over Europe the lockdown shutters are coming down again, commercial life is being suspended again, companies and livelihoods threatened again. Business leaders are weary – many in the crucial SME and self-employed sectors, which between them in the UK employ over 60% of the workforce and generate over 50% of GDP, have performed heroics in keeping their businesses alive and adapting to the new conditions, often with little or no government support, and they simply do not have the energy or financial resources to do it all again. But even for those less challenged, there is a deep despair that all the sacrifices of the first lockdowns seem to have achieved nothing, that we are back at square one, that no country is any closer to coming to terms with, let alone beating, the disease – only this time we are poorer as we start, our economies are weaker, our treasuries emptier.
On top of the despair, there is growing doubt about whether lockdown is the right answer at all. Was the virus’s general disappearance in the summer because of the lockdown in the spring, or was it just because it was summer? Coronavirus diseases are far from unknown, and they always die down in summer, returning as often as not in the cooler damper months of autumn and winter. As the saying has it “Snuffles, like schoolchildren, return in September”. Perhaps the pattern of reducing infections and death rolls 6 months ago had little to do with the lockdown in the spring, perhaps it would largely have happened anyway.
And with the Despair, and the Doubt, comes a third D: Dissent. And whereas Lockdown 1.0 was characterised by Respect, Resolve and Resilience, as people took their responsibilities seriously and in general obeyed even the most draconian of restrictions, Lockdown 2.0 is more noted for Resignation, Resentment and not a little Resistance.
This is not helped by three things. Firstly, the rules are much less clear, the restrictions more nuanced, the exceptions more numerous. This is for a very good reason: in the UK at least, the government has genuinely tried to learn lessons from the first lockdown and is now more actively trying to balance economic costs against health risks. As a result, some activities which look on the surface to be risky to public health are now allowed, simply because restricting them would do more economic damage than allowing them risks public health.
Most obviously, schools and universities have been allowed to stay open this time round: the health risks from keeping them open are deemed justified to avoid the catastrophic economic and social costs of closing them again. But it works both ways: some activities which appear not to offer much health risk (for example, allowing golf courses to stay open) are banned, because the economic benefit of allowing them to remain open is also lower.
In effect, the government has decided it cannot pursue a total no-risk policy again, because the economic costs would be too high, so it has to allow some risky activities to take place. And this of course leads to arguments about which sectors of society to allow to stay open and which to close, in other words where to spend society’s risk budget. And the government cannot win this debate, because the complaints of the losers are always louder than the support of the winners.
But then politics has always been about choosing which parts of society should be favoured and which asked to show restraint, and the debates over Lockdown 2.0 are entirely in keeping with this. It does not make the government’s task any easier, but it is surely better than a second blanket closure of almost everything.
The second feature of Lockdown 2.0 is the hostility of the press and other media to those in government trying to plot the country’s path. The metamorphosis of the press, from neutral reporter of the news first to a greater emphasis on commentary and analysis, and then more latterly to the modern style of aggressive criticism and denunciation of anyone in authority, is worthy of an essay in itself; suffice it to say though that although many decry modern media’s emphasis on everyone else’s failings (though never, of course, their own), there never was a time when the press was totally impartial and respectful of the government, nor could any media channel make a living today from the neutral provision of news without further comment.
But this does not make the government’s task any easier – especially as the UK press seems wilfully to ignore the fact that no other government in Europe has a much better answer to the pandemic either. To read the British press would be to believe that Westminster was uniquely incompetent, uniquely floundering in the dark, which is simply not the case.
But if these two headwinds for the government are largely external, the third feature of the current situation is entirely down to the political class itself. And that is the public’s loss of trust in officialdom. Starting with but by no means limited to Dominic Cummings and his much publicised trip to northern England in the spring, there have been too many cases of politicians and officials breaking the spirit of the regulations, even if they try to argue they are obeying the letter of them, for a tired and cynical public to continue to respect their elite.
And latterly, even respect for “the science” has worn very thin too. As the commentator David Pearson has noted in his blog “Bonfire night”, “The science is not science. It is not peer‑reviewed. It is not independent. And it is not balanced with consideration of other issues”. Worse, it is not even accurate – decisions are being made on figures which have been proven to be out of date, selective, incomplete or just plain wrong.
This matters, because trust in government, and in the decisions they are taking, is fundamental to democracy. If the rallying cry of the American revolutionaries in the 1770s was “No taxation without representation”, the modern equivalent is “No cooperation without explanation”. Electorates no longer simply deferentially do as their masters dictate: they wish to challenge, to debate, above all to understand the decisions that affect their lives. And they will not willingly obey a government that hides the facts, that does not explain their actions, that cannot justify the impositions they are placing on their citizens.
At heart, the question of whether lockdowns are sensible revolves around one issue. We know – we have seen from Lockdown 1.0 – that they cause real, ongoing and in many cases irreversible economic pain. What we do not know is what that economic pain is buying. Is it winning for us a permanent health benefit, defeating the virus, or at any rate holding it at bay for long enough for a vaccine to ride to mankind’s rescue? Or is it merely giving us a temporary benefit, delaying the surge but not removing the threat, and ensuring that when the lockdowns are lifted again – as they must be, or our economies will die – the virus will return and the pain and destroyed lives will have been in vain?
Much depends on this question. But as the brief summer of (partial) respite gives way to what looks as though it will be a long hard winter, few western democracies can be confident that they have the answer.