It’s mid-March 2020 and I am on a 6-man ski-lift in Crans-Montana with a few pals. There’s also an Italian woman with a dry repetitive cough. ‘All my friends gotta Covid,’ she volunteers cheerfully. Despite being relatively healthy chaps in our early 50s, looking at her was momentarily like staring into the abyss. Was this person about to die? Would we therefore die also, or at least be a vector of spread, causing the deaths of many others? Tacitly we concluded it was best not to think about it for fear of putting us off the beer we were planning to have at the top of the télécabine.
As it happens, we actually weren’t that worried. One of our party had come armed with the current data from the Diamond Princess cruise ship which had become a pariah of the high seas the previous month when it was widely reported that it had half of the world’s known cases of CV-19 on board. Of the 2,166 mostly aged passengers 567 were infected. Eventually 9 passengers died of Covid or 0.4% of the passenger population. In total, only 19% of the passengers and crew caught the disease despite it having had the opportunity to spread. No crew died.
Anecdotally, the Captain had delayed locking down the ship for as long as possible, allegedly because he didn’t want to deprive healthy passengers of the Cabaret and Captain’s Table. This was the perfect Covid Petri Dish. And we had the data. Like many, we became instant statisticians, quickly working out that every year 7.5% of the over-75s in the UK die so a death rate from a supposed deadly disease in a confined, unregulated, ageing group of 0.4% seemed tragic if not disastrous on an actuarial level.
Between then and now, with a few wobbles, my view hasn’t changed much. Along with many others in the trade I have a deep scepticism about the world’s reaction to Covid. A recent Freedom of Information request asked the government for the total number of deaths where Covid was the only cause of death. The number was a shock even to me: 17,371. However, as we have seen countless times, the truth is illusive and statistics can be used to prove that it’s no worse than flu or that we’re all going to die. We need a rigorous, dispassionate, independent enquiry into the government’s management of the pandemic. Let’s hope we get one.
But for me the biggest lesson does not need an inquiry. In the future, we must trust the people. On 18th March 2020 I had lunch with Alex Reilley at Chez Dominique in Bath. I was the only person on the train from Paddington that morning, and we were the only customers in the restaurant. People had locked down by themselves. We’ve seen this again and again, most recently this Christmas with the huge efforts made by the vast majority to keep vulnerable family members safe as Omicron spread. Let Xi and Ardern turn their countries into prisons, we have to be better than that.
We must trust the people to be intelligent enough to understand risk. We must give context to infection and death numbers. Explain who is at risk and who isn’t. I am not suggesting that Covid isn’t a highly dangerous disease for those in the vulnerable categories, but it is very low risk for those who aren’t. And that’s not even the point. As humans we make complex risk calculations every day. And threatened with what was presented as a modern-day bubonic plague, it’s clear that people will willingly accept, even welcome almost any draconian, illogical, inhumane law if it means ‘keeping safe’. This has bestowed immense power on our leaders, to a degree unimaginable in recent democratic history. And with that power comes immense responsibility. To foster fear and then use it to criminalise normal human behaviour is an abuse of that power. An abuse made worse when the behaviour of the lawmakers makes plain they never believed there was a serious danger.
The deep-seated desire to move past Covid means I will support the leader most likely to deliver that. Like many in the sector, I have cheered on Boris’s Covid policy since the summer of last year. Almost uniquely on the world stage, he has inflicted the bare minimum of damage to society and the economy given the pressure from Sage, the Labour Party and large parts of the media to lock down again. And England (not Scotland or Wales) genuinely seems well-placed to bounce back quick. It’s just a pity that the same amoral scepticism and raw political instinct which enabled him to take that brilliant political gamble also expressed itself in the bacchanalian cynicism of Downing Street’s rave culture. That said, I couldn’t care less if Boris thanked his team with a party outside, inside or on the moon. How many of us thanked our heroic delivery teams in a similar manner during lockdown? But I do hope that coming out of this Boris or his successor will recognise that the legal enforcement of a lockdown policy which removed our basic human rights and sector livelihoods for months at a time to the detriment of the poorest, the youngest and the most vulnerable in society must never be repeated. And looking at the Irish numbers against ours right now, the worst of it is it’s obvious Lockdowns do not even work. The problem wasn’t breaking the rules, it was the rules themselves.