“No other country in the world.” A handful of words that have leapt out of the laptop with panic-inducing regularity over the past 12 mad months.
Little old Britain has considered or done many things that no other country in the world has. This time last year, almost no one, for example, had heard of the phrase “herd immunity”. Indeed the first time you were likely to have heard the term, it was almost certainly accompanied by the news that no other country in the world was thinking about doing it.
When Boris Johnson was, so it was said, being advised by his scientists to pursue a “herd immunity” strategy, police were on the streets of Paris and Lombardy, implementing national lockdowns that this country considered rejecting altogether. The UK then tried to time its lockdown to coincide with the “peak” of the pandemic, before finally implementing restrictions far too late.
At this time, there were, for example, news reports explaining how the UK strategy of “herd immunity” – which Johnson now denies ever considering, even though his chief scientific adviser discussed it on live television – could lead to “250,000 to 500,000” deaths.
Still, we saw the error of our ways in good time, and kept the death toll down to about half that – so far, of course. Later we would be “world beating”, in the form of the £22bn test and trace programme that did not work. We would also, according to the prime minister, be “freedom loving”, which explained why we just could not handle the restrictions he had not managed to implement properly, and so had no choice but to die in far greater numbers than almost any comparable nation on Earth.
And now we are having another go at doing something no other country in the world is doing. We have a “roadmap”. A precise set of dates, over the next four months, that are a “one way-road to freedom”. The prime minister, of course, will only be driven by “data not dates”, but has nevertheless all but committed to a large number of very precise ones, including 21 June as the end of all restrictions.
As with all pronouncements over the past 10 months or so, Johnson has made clear that all these dates depend on certain criteria being met, and he “will not hesitate” to change his mind or change the plan if required. He said this, for example, when he announced the five-day Christmas truce. And true to his word, he only hesitated for a few weeks, before waiting until it was too late to almost but not quite cancel the whole thing, ensuring the worst possible outcome in all possible ways.
No other world leader has made such an unforgiving rod for their own back. No other has promised so much when it is clearly not possible for such things to be delivered.
In the past 24 hours, it has been regularly claimed that, finally, Johnson has got the message. That he has embraced the virtues of caution, the only virtue to which the virus has no response. He has stopped over-promising and under-delivering, no more torture induced by way of false hope.
Except that he hasn’t, has he? No other country in the world, to the best of my knowledge, is sending millions of schoolchildren back to the classroom on a single day, from where they will return each day to homes full of millions of unvaccinated adults, who will remain that way for months and months to come. These are the same conditions in which the Kent variant came into being, with its potential to derail the vaccination programme. The R-rate going above one – that’s priced in as close to a certainty in the coming weeks.
There are now many thousands of people having a fourth or fifth go at sending out “save the dates” for a wedding, on the understanding that they’ve been told that from 21 June, it’ll all be fine. Will it be fine? Even if it goes ahead, will it all be fine?
Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. But there’s every reason to imagine this new, cautious, “humble in the face of nature” prime minister is even more reckless than before.