England faces the tensest two weeks of its entire lockdown. On 14 June, the government must decide if the long-promised “freedom day” of 21 June can proceed as promised. That promise has now been plunged into doubt. A three-day surge in “cases” of the variant of Covid first detected in India may, or may not, mark the start of a third wave of the coronavirus. Boris Johnson has promised that any more lockdown will be over his dead body, but Johnson’s body has already lost more lives than the proverbial cat.
We now know, thanks to the new patron saint of whistleblowers, Dominic Cummings, the scale of government ineptitude and shambles that attended the first two lockdowns. People can now scream at ministers to make up their minds, show judgment, give a steer, keep their promises. But today the issue is not one of judgment, but of facts. We await data much as a nation awaits news of a battle in distant parts. Without news, we cannot think how to act.
The caveats are easy to recite. We hear them every day. Has not Britain’s campaign of vaccination and treatment curbed what is still a rampant disease across Europe? Perhaps the upsurge in cases is due to the intensity of testing in hotspots such as Bolton and Blackburn. There is no sign of the upsurge reflected in hospital admissions, let alone deaths. Surely we have spent all this money showing the NHS can handle any new wave without lockdown. Thousands of businesses and the country’s morale will be devastated if promises of normality on 21 June are not met.
Yet what can we say? Alarmist scientists guarding their reputations are competing daily not to be thought “soft on lockdown”. Just a few more weeks of lockdown costs them nothing. They are right that the rise in cases is exactly what preceded the previous two waves, when those who cried wolf were proved right. Do we really want to risk thousands more deaths?
At such moments we tend to fall back on our default ideologies. I believe that the ultimate proof of Britain’s success in vaccination is precisely that it can take a risk on 21 June. Provided, of course, that ministers do what they often find so hard to do: explain precisely the risk involved to the public. But just now risk assessment is wholly dependent on the flow of data.
So everyone must hold their horses. We have to honour those for whom Covid has been the most ghastly trauma and for whom lockdown remains the only line of last defence. We have, for just two weeks, to accept that the only thing we know is that we don’t know. We should, for once, respect those who must make these awful decisions for us.