The anniversary of VE day falls next Friday and the British public will be enjoying a well-earned bank holiday to celebrate (finally, a day at home for everyone!). You can expect an abundance of commentary relating our current crisis to that from which Britain emerged 75 years ago. Whereas most references to war in politics are crass and misjudged, it is fair to look at the impact of COVID-19 and see – in the scale and the economic cost – some valid comparisons. The gigantic new role of the state in our economy, the withdrawal of civil liberties, the mass mobilisation of public servants to focus on a single and existential issue – these things do not happen in peacetime.
But the really interesting parallel, here, is not so much with the war itself but with what happened next. Because the war didn’t end – for millions of people, meaningfully – on VE day or even on VJ day. It took until 1947 to bring the bulk of the five or so million British men and women deployed overseas home. Food was still rationed until 1954. The war may have been over but the people weren’t over the war, not for a very long time. And so it will be with COVID-19. Whilst Government, Opposition and the press talk about how the lockdown might be relaxed, no-one with any kind of power is talking about lifting it entirely and getting back to be something that would be recognisably normal in the foreseeable future.
Rather than a release, Britain faces a process. An incredibly difficult, complicated process that is designed to gradually ease the burden on our economy, our children’s education and (for many of us) our mental health, whilst at the same time enforcing new ways of living and working that reduce the risk of a sudden and deadly ‘second wave’ of infections. As if this were not complicated enough a technical challenge, the Government needs to achieve this whilst also tackling an equally tricky communications challenge.
The British public have responded to the advice and the rules that have emerged from Government with remarkable compliance. The Government did not expect the lockdown to be as well-observed or the public to be as patient as has proven the case. And polling, this week, showed that more than 60% of people would worry about a return to ‘normal life’ and will continue to voluntarily abstain from bars, restaurants and public transport. The terrifying, clear and effective communications campaign that emerged after a bungled start, has successfully frightened the public into obeying the guidance. But it has been so successful that it is not clear that should the guidance change, the people will be prepared to change their behaviour again with it. That has consequences because, in the end, whilst Boris Johnson does not want to precipitate another peak of infections, he also needs to do whatever possible to reduce the recession that COVID-19 has created – both in terms of its severity and its duration. A public that doesn’t want to get back to work or back to normal is not conducive to that objective.
So whilst Boris is back in the driving seat, the route looks treacherous. Oversteer in either direction and a cliff edge awaits – either an economy permanently mutilated or a population getting sicker again. And across the aisle (physical or virtual) a leader of the opposition who keeps asking – calmly and seriously – whether Boris really knows where he is going at all? And wouldn’t we be better off stopping to look at the map?
The nation may have been (almost) universally relieved when the Prime Minister recovered from COVID-19 and happy for him when his partner gave birth, but that doesn’t mean they’ll forgive him if he plows a safe path through carelessness. Let’s hope he doesn’t have to do too many night feeds, he is going to need his wits about him if he hopes that he will be able, soon, to declare ‘victory over COVID’ day and give everyone a proper day off.
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