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JOHN HUMPHRYS: Why the public is rising up against the response to Covid's second wave


Eagle-eyed viewers of Mastermind may just have spotted something unusual when it returned to BBC2 last week. They would have noticed that there was no audience in the studio. That was blindingly obvious.

Only the really sharp-eyed might have spotted that the presenter (yours truly) might — just possibly — have occasionally had a delicate dewdrop perched on the end of his nose.

And also that he was shivering — as though he were sitting in the freezer compartment of a large fridge rather than the usually overheated fug of a studio lit by a thousand glowing bulbs.

The reasons for the absent audience and the glistening dewdrop were the same. Covid. 

Social distancing meant we must rule out squeezing a couple of hundred strangers together for a few hours of coughing and sneezing. 

The rather larger problems of Covid outside the Mastermind studio are not being solved. They are being bodged (pictured, street partying in Liverpool on Tuesday night)

The rather larger problems of Covid outside the Mastermind studio are not being solved. They are being bodged (pictured, street partying in Liverpool on Tuesday night)

And risk assessment protocols demanded that the air conditioning had to be turned up to a level where the average polar bear might feel comfortable. You do not argue with the risk assessors.

The problem of a shivering presenter was solved eventually by a thermal vest and a small heater hidden under my desk.

The brave contenders were left to shiver.

And the absence of a studio audience — for the first time since Mastermind hit the airwaves nearly half a century ago — was solved by some brilliant set designers and producers.

The rather larger problems of Covid outside the Mastermind studio are not being solved. They are being bodged. And have been since the first case was confirmed on these shores seven months ago.

As you read these words, half the country is under some form of punitive restriction.

Some of us are not allowed to go to the pub for a quiet drink (with or without a pasty on the side) and a chat with a friend. Or even a relative. 

Unless, of course, they are part of our ‘household’ or ‘bubble’. What a strange concept that is.

My lovely daughter lives in North Wales. We were looking forward enormously to her spending this weekend at my home in London. But she’s not part of my household so she can’t. Nor can I pop next door for a coffee with my neighbour.

These are small things. I shall miss seeing her and my grandchildren, but it’s not the end of the world.

Nor is the almost daily irritation of coming up against the various inconsistencies in the way the ‘rules’ (or even laws) are enforced. Or not, as the case may be.

I made two visits to medical centres this week. The first for a flu jab, the second for an MoT on my (healthy) heart. At one centre, suitably masked, I was greeted by a cheerful nurse who gossiped amusingly about the strange ways of this Covid world, gave me my jab and sent me on my way.

John Humphrys: My daughter lives in North Wales. We were looking forward to her spending this weekend at my home in London. But she's not part of my household so she can't

John Humphrys: My daughter lives in North Wales. We were looking forward to her spending this weekend at my home in London. But she’s not part of my household so she can’t

At the second, the door to the waiting room was firmly locked. A large notice instructed me to press a button if I wished to ‘gain admittance’. I did. 

An officious voice told me I was early for my appointment and had to wait outside in the car park — even though it was raining.

When I finally got in, two thirds of the seats were taped off. All were empty. 

So it was apparently deemed safer to keep me outside in the rain than endanger the other non-existent patients. Or pollute the room with vicious viruses that would hang suspended in the air waiting to attack the next unsuspecting patient to be allowed in.

Look, I know it’s easy to find fault with officialdom.

There have always been bossy bureaucrats who justify their existence by making our lives difficult. Always will be.

And if that’s all we have to complain about in this, the nation’s greatest crisis . . . well, we can live with that. Except that it’s not all we have to complain about. And, crucially, this is not the nation’s greatest crisis. Not by a mile.

That’s why someone should hang above Boris Johnson’s desk the extract from a speech at a time when the entire world was about to face its greatest crisis. 

The speaker was President Roosevelt. He said: ‘The only thing we have to fear . . .is fear itself.’ That powerful sentiment bears repeating 87 years later because it was not just brilliant rhetoric.

It was based on a profound understanding of human behaviour. Fear replaces reason. Fear prevents us from dispassionately assessing the threat and calmly assessing the most effective way of dealing with it.

Fear is especially effective in distorting the judgment of politicians. Boris Johnson fears the verdict of the electorate on his handling of Covid, which helps explain why we have watched him and his ministers twist and turn with every new development.

At first, the Government hid behind what they persisted in calling ‘the science’ as though all scientists were privy to one inviolate truth. When that was revealed for the grotesque absurdity it was, they panicked.

No matter how much the hapless Health Secretary Matt Hancock might have ducked and dived in his increasingly desperate attempts to justify one switch in policy after another, the nation now knows full well that we are seeing a Government clutching at whatever might convince us that it is in control.

We know that it’s not.

Yet most citizens of this mostly open-minded country were willing to cut them a great deal of slack in the early days of the pandemic. 

We might have raised a sceptical eyebrow at some of the more preposterous predictions from the likes of Professor Neil Ferguson, whose ‘modelling’ triggered the draconian lockdown in March, but we accepted it if only because we could see no sensible alternative.

We had more difficulty dealing with the sheer incompetence of our ‘world-beating’ test and trace system that made Eddie the Eagle look like a gold medallist.

We grew angry when we saw the criminally irresponsible way old people were treated when they were turfed out of hospitals to die like flies in nursing homes.

We are becoming even angrier at the growing evidence that vast numbers of people will die of diseases such as cancer because they have been effectively denied the diagnosis and treatment that might have saved them.

There were 26 million fewer GP appointments during lockdown. No doubt some of those appointments would have been trivial, but we shall never know how many people suffered because they listened to the dire warnings and stayed away from surgeries. Suffered and, perhaps, died.

And now this. Now we are presented with what this newspaper succinctly summed up yesterday as a ‘mish-mash of oppressive diktats: complicated, bewildering, illogical and unfair’.

It is simply silly that in half the country we can sit on a bus or Tube for half an hour with dozens of strangers, then sit in an office with dozens of colleagues for several more hours but when we leave work we can’t stroll into a pub with those same colleagues for a pint of beer.

Nor can we meet our brother or sister in the pub — unless, of course, they happen to be part of our ‘household’ or ‘bubble’.

A detail, you may say. And perhaps it would be if it was set against the magnitude of a virus which is slaughtering us in such vast numbers. Except, of course, that it is doing no such thing. 

There might be a moral case for lockdowns (above, Liverpool) and yet more limited restrictions if there was evidence that they would offer a viable solution to controlling the disease

There might be a moral case for lockdowns (above, Liverpool) and yet more limited restrictions if there was evidence that they would offer a viable solution to controlling the disease

Let me acknowledge immediately that one single avoidable death is a death too many. And let me also acknowledge that the statistics show more than 43,000 people have died in the United Kingdom.

But let’s look at who make up that number — and who do not. They are not children. It is worth reminding ourselves again and again that this is not a disease that threatens the young or even the middle-aged. 

They become infected, but they shrug it off like I shrug off my sore arm from my flu jab. They might very well not even know they’ve had it.

We must also keep reminding ourselves that those who die from it are old. Very old. The average age of death from Covid is 82.4. That’s several months longer than the UK’s average life expectancy.

It’s not even true to say that most old people who get Covid die from it. The fact is that for every seven victims in their 90s, six survive. We used to think Covid killed between 2 and 3 per cent of its victims. Now it’s reckoned to be below 0.4 per cent.

At the risk of stating the very, very obvious: we must all die of something. And I have a modest degree of moral authority in this field because I myself will never see 70 again.

So let’s return to the real world.

Yes, there will be more deaths from Covid. But even though the rate of infection has been climbing over recent weeks, it is still a fraction of what it was in April.

In spite of all this, there might be a moral case for lockdowns and yet more limited restrictions if there was evidence that they would offer a viable solution to controlling the disease. But we know they won’t.

In those early, desperate days, we all pinned our hopes on an all-conquering vaccine. Sadly, that is what it remains. A hope.

That’s why the special Covid envoy for the World Health Organisation, Dr David Nabarro, has said: ‘We in the WHO do not advocate lockdowns as the primary means of control of this virus . . . We really do appeal to all world leaders: stop using lockdown as your primary control method.’

In the most simple terms, he is asking a very understandable question. All lockdowns must end. And then what?

Presumably that makes the esteemed Dr Nabarro a ‘crank and a crackpot’, which happens to be how the eminent scientists and medics who signed the Great Barrington Declaration have been described. All 37,000 so far of them. 

Their view is we should look again at sheltering the vulnerable while allowing the rest of society to continue with life pretty much as normal. Well, if so, I’m proud to be called one too — and I suspect a growing number of the British population would weigh in.

It’s true the polls still suggest a majority in favour of greater restrictions and even the national so-called ‘circuit-breaker’ that Labour leader Keir Starmer and others are calling for. 

But that’s hardly surprising, given that being a member of the SAGE committee has virtually guaranteed you a primetime interview slot on most of the leading news programmes.

For the first few months of the pandemic they went virtually unchallenged. But that is beginning to change and support for the hardline lockdown view is losing its appeal. Indeed, this may be some sort of tipping point. 

The Government seems to have broken from the scientists, insofar as it has stopped short of instituting the more extreme measures SAGE has proposed. The public may be close to breaking from the Government.

For the first few months of the pandemic they went virtually unchallenged. But support for the hardline lockdown view is losing its appeal (above, shoppers wait at Tesco in south London)

For the first few months of the pandemic they went virtually unchallenged. But support for the hardline lockdown view is losing its appeal (above, shoppers wait at Tesco in south London)

We have already seen young people putting up two fingers to authority by dancing in the streets after chucking-out time. Perhaps their parents will start doing the equivalent: inviting Auntie Mabel in for a cuppa against the rules. 

Unless, of course, they are already doing it. Not so much mass civil disobedience as a more subtle revolt from the suburbs: don’t take us for granted!

The nation is still scared but, I suspect, that fear is shifting to the incalculable damage we are doing to the economy. 

Specifically to the list of businesses being forced to close their shutters. The list grows longer every day. 

The prospect of millions of younger people on the dole queue is truly terrifying.

In my first column for this newspaper on the Covid crisis, I took a defiant — and admittedly naïve — approach. Like many others, I was cross with my local authority for overreacting. 

They had — dammit! — locked the gates of my local park, which I use for my morning run. 

So I announced I would jump over the gates and if some jobsworth wanted to catch me at 6am he’d be welcome to try.

It never happened because the council backed down and the locks came off. An easy victory. But a hollow one. Those were the days of innocence. Only now — seven months on — are we truly starting to count the real cost of the virus.

Let us hope that when we look back on the Covid era, we do not regret turning a short-lived crisis into a catastrophe that will blight our lives and those of our children for a generation.

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