Social Distancing: How Far? How Long For?

May 24th, 2020
Screenshot BBC News

Time to relax the rules?

Isolation, especially when imposed rather than chosen, is hard. No wonder solitary confinement is a punishment. Periods of quiet, retreat, solitariness are valuable as a contrast to life’s normal noisy busyness. Above all, they are chosen and can be broken at will, our will. Humans crave and seek intimacy and closeness and communal activities. Socialisation and socialising – in their widest sense – are necessary for the sound development of the child and joy as an adult. The support and comfort of friends and family during times of trouble, the kindness of strangers, the sharing and mutual enjoyment of – and participation in – activities, celebrations and remembrances, being with others, the mixing, the buzz, the conversation, the joint creation of something by a group, by an “us”, are what all human societies have done or tried to do, no matter what the obstacles. Not all of this has been in the flesh. But most of it – and not simply because the technology was previously unavailable. There is something special, something necessary, something real about being with other people, about touch and looks and sound (and yes, smell, too) and the emotions created by physical closeness. Human communication is so much more than instructions or words mediated via screen or page.

So necessary is this to our sense of what it means to be human, that we have viewed with horror those trying to stop this. Usually it’s been done for ideological reasons or to protect people’s souls (think of Cromwell closing inns, theatres, banning sport, Christmas and carol-singing). Only relatively rarely has it been done to protect health. When illnesses struck, it was people’s fears – more than rulers’ orders – which stopped normal activities. Quarantine, plague hospitals, the shunning or expulsion of the sick or those believed to be carriers were the usual responses to epidemics. But not all infectious and fatal diseases have elicited this response: mankind lived with smallpox and TB. The latter is spread through close personal contact: coughing, sneezing, singing, talking, laughing, something known long before a cure. It was endemic in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries: London was Europe’s TB capital. Consumptives were treated as best they could be; the conditions in which TB thrived were – eventually – addressed. But society did not close theatres or choirs or inns or stop poets travelling or people meeting or close the venues where this happened. We still don’t, despite a death rate of 15%: in 2018 1.5 million people worldwide died from TB out of 10 million catching it.

Perhaps one change is that we have become much less willing to live with such risks or to see people die who might be saved were we to forego our pleasures for a while. It is admirably altruistic. Or perhaps we have been lulled into believing that life can be made safe. Or maybe it is simply because this virus has come upon us so fast, been so overwhelming and frightening, that the need to hit back hard has become the primary consideration. None of this is wrong – in an emergency. But social distancing in the short-term is one thing. Doing it long-term after the end of lockdown quite another.

In some activities, being close to others is not essential – even if it has been the norm until now. Much office work and manufacturing can either be done with people separated or wearing protective gear or with process changes minimising close contact. In others, closeness is an inevitable by-product: bus and train travel, for instance, or shopping. It may be possible to reduce this – though at a high price. But in others – most forms of socialising, recreation, hospitality, the arts, sport, religion and many communal activities – social closeness is integral to and a very large part of the point of the activity. Social distancing does not mean doing these things in a slightly different way. It means not doing them at all – or doing them in such a way as to drain them of all the fun, all the meaning, all the reasons why people wanted to do them in the first place. And that’s before we get onto whether it is possible to do them profitably.

Keeping everyone 2 metres apart has very significant implications for how we live and interact. It is not simply a health measure. Nor simply a scientific decision. (If it were, wouldn’t we have insisted on it to avoid the spread of other diseases with similar outcomes?) It’s unworkable: stop people meeting in restaurants and they’ll meet at home. It’s out of line with what other European countries are doing. If this report (https://www.thetimes.co.uk/edition/news/two-metre-coronavirus-rule-will-bankrupt-businesses-nqmr93vqw) is to be believed, 2 metres remains the advice because change might cause confusion. (Even if promulgated by SAGE scientists, there is something frivolously inconsiderate about imposing a requirement with such far-reaching consequences simply because it is too much effort to communicate a change to it clearly.)

Is this really the way we want to live after lockdown is lifted? Are people and businesses really going to be required or pressured to live and work in ways which make it practically impossible for them to do so? (The legal status of government “advice” or “guidance” – and what happens if it is ignored or cannot be adhered to – will certainly keep lawyers and health’n’safety professionals busy – but give everyone else an almighty headache.)

Is the destruction of – or very significant damage to – large parts of our economy and society the price which must be paid? And, if so, should this be paid only by those most directly affected or more fairly shared? (It is an intensely political question for a government which has a majority from areas of the country which would be most badly affected were this to become the norm. Little chance of any levelling up if one of a region’s main industries has been destroyed.)

Maybe the risks should be explained and advice given about how one might try to avoid it. And that is all. Once lockdown is lifted, “social distancing” is a choice for individuals/organisations not a “rule” to be followed. Basic, sensible hygiene measures: yes. But the idea that you can have venues and activities where social closeness is integral to the very nature of what is going on at the same time as “social distancing” is surely contradictory nonsense. Let individuals and businesses decide whether to take the risk – a risk which is not, in any event, the same for everyone – as they do for a myriad other risks already.

Ah, the cry comes, it’s not just the risk you run but the risk you cause others to run: the health workers who treat you if you become ill, those who may catch it from you and suffer more severely or die. How dare you be so selfish? As if this isn’t what we do already every time we drive or leave the house with an infection which becomes severe in another weaker person? Or drink to excess? Or smoke, become overweight and unfit and expect others to treat us and pay for it too? Or indulge in extreme sports and expect others to rescue us, even at some danger to themselves? We don’t deny people treatment if they have been at fault in becoming ill or injured? (Should we?) So why the moralising over this virus?

There is no one or easy answer. People’s views will depend on their own position, that of those they care about and how shielded they are or not from the consequences. We value lives over money, so we say. (Though not perhaps so much as to pay carers a good salary and forego our inherited houses or to look after the disabled properly -https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/coronavirus-s-forgotten-victims). How dare people put the economy, money, profits ahead of lives! No-one needs a café or a theatre visit or to make music in a band in a pub.

Why are we overreacting, say others. This is another disease like so many we have suffered before. Lives are also lost and harmed when we turn away from people, when we deny them the ability to work and earn and live a connected meaningful life, not merely an existence. Do we value the ability to reach out and comfort a crying mourner at a funeral? There is something inhuman and unkind about being forced not to. But, hey, garden centres are open!

We can live a chilly distanced life with only our basic needs met. But when lockdown ends, the question is not whether we can but whether we should, whether we want to. This is not fundamentally an economic or health question. It’s about how we live our lives, about what enriches them and makes them meaningful. It’s also about who makes that decision: each of us individually or the government for us.



Wear and tear. The fate of Dominic Cummings

May 24th, 2020

We become what we hate, so yogis tell us. For Dominic Cummings, son-in-law of a baronet and nephew of a judge, the transition to unelected and unaccountable metropolitan elitist was a short journey.

The Prime Minister has thrown his weight behind him for now and the Cabinet were dutifully tweeting on behalf of a devoted family man who felt the compelling need to drive the length of the country to self-isolate in his other home. Will this last?  

The answer may depend on the answers to the following four questions.

1. What actually happened? 

The story that we have been given so far defies credulity. How did Dominic Cummings actually know he was going to get so ill that he couldn’t look after his child at a time when he was apparently capable of driving 250 miles?  

Let us put to one side the legalities and the ethics of the matter. Let us also put to one side whether the commissioning editor of the Spectator and the Prime Minister’s chief adviser might just possibly have been able to find help much closer at hand to London than County Durham.  

We are being asked to believe that Dominic Cummings – a man who was not knowledgeable enough about the disease to work out how to avoid catching it – was able to predict (in a way that mere doctors could not) that he was going to be poleaxed by the disease rather than shrug it off as many of his age do. Truly he is a superforecaster.

Then let us imagine that drive. Imagine a man fevered with illness, with his very ill wife beside him and the three year old in the back seat.  It would be a voyage of the damned. Did they stop on the way? Most three year olds are like taps on long journeys. Did they have enough petrol? How many times did they give others the involuntary opportunity to participate in the development of herd immunity?  

The government seems not to care about putting the minds of the public at rest.  They have not formally confirmed the date or time of the journey as yet.

And then they arrived at his parents’ house, where we are being asked to believe that they did not after all come into contact with his parents, but were tended to by younger family members.  According to the report you believe, he either “day in, day out for ten days he lay doggo with a high fever and spasms that made the muscles lump and twitch in his legs” (his wife’s account) or was in the garden listening to Dancing Queen.  

It has to be said that Mary Wakefield’s account, like Roger Ackroyd’s, deserves congratulations for its modesty and reticence.  Like his account, some rows of stars appropriately placed in the text would probably have assisted the reader.  Perhaps she can provide a revised version at some point.

Curiously, no one at all as far as I can see has thought about the journey back.  When was that?  Were Dominic Cummings and Mary Wakefield still infectious then?  Why did they not stay in place?  That journey seems to have been even more unnecessary.  Could they not continue to work remotely?

Then there are the apparently-numerous recreational journeys that Dominic Cummings took back to the north east.  Perhaps he saw himself as supporting the public amenities of the north east at that stage.  He seems to have been making the journey between London and Durham almost as often as LNER train staff.  The government is refusing to comment on these.  At some point it is going to need to.

2. Did Dominic Cummings’ decision lead to a change in government guidance? 

This looks distinctly possible on the time line we currently have.  The Guardian put its allegations about Dominic Cummings to Number 10 on 10 April.  That afternoon, Jenny Harries provided clarification of the earlier guidance:

“Clearly if you have adults who are unable to look after a small child, that is an exceptional circumstance.

And if the individuals do not have access to care support, formal care support, or to family, they will be able to work through their local authority hubs.”

This conveniently retrospectively gave Dominic Cummings some cover.  

Perhaps that was a coincidence.  It would be helpful to have it cleared up whether and when that scenario had been war-gamed.  If public policy had changed to give some support to the Prime Minister’s adviser’s decisions, that would be a shocking abuse of power.

3. When did Boris Johnson know? 

Then there is the question of the Prime Minister’s role. The story is weeks old but the Prime Minister has taken no action before now.

The Prime Minister was very ill at the earliest stages of all this and it is entirely understandable that he might not have been briefed for quite some time.  But he must surely have known long before it came to light, given the questions from the newspapers and yet he did nothing.  Why?

The obvious conclusion is that he didn’t care.  That again begs the question: why?

4. How does the government intend to claim moral authority when it wants the public to follow its guidance in future?

This final question is the most important one.  The government has a critically important role right now of both keeping the country healthy and making sure the economy isn’t wrecked.  That dual role is difficult to balance at the best of times.

Dominic Cummings’ actions have torched the government’s claims to any moral authority.  Every child who has not seen his or her parent, every grandparent who has stoically sat alone for weeks, every wife who has had to see her husband buried without mourners or proper ceremony now knows that the government was making mugs of them.  For that matter, every person who has ached with loneliness missing loved ones has been told that those at the highest levels of government are swanning around without a care in the world.  Many of them are now in a cold fury.

The government will need to call on the public to follow its instructions again, and very shortly.  The public will now listen to that call very differently.  It will not listen as part of a team but as serfs listen to the lords of the manor.  They might comply but they will not engage.  And many will not comply, but instead will make their own decisions as to what they do.  The fearful will stay at home.  The reckless will ignore government restrictions.

As a result, the tearing up of government guidelines to protect its most senior adviser will in all probability cost lives and cause further damage to the economy.  Let us hope that it was worth it for the government.  It’s hard to see how it was for the country.

Alastair Meeks


In other news Starmer moves to a net 24% lead over Johnson in latest Opinium approval ratings

May 24th, 2020
Opinium May 21 ’20

A third of Tory voters disapprove of Starmer compared with three-quarters of LAB voters disapproving of Johnson

The latest Opinium poll carried out before the Cummings lockdown affair came out overnight and the big change has been in the approval ratings of the PM and LOTO. The charts above show the recent trends.

A big development is that for the first time Starmer has moved ahead of Johnson and he’s done it with a spectacular jump in just seven days. Last week he was just behind the PM. This week he is on a net plus 30% while Johnson is on a net 6%. So a gap of 24 points.

This week, of course, has seen the PM u-turn on NHS fees for overseas NHS workers and another lacklustre PMQs.

What’s really interesting in the figures is that Tory voters are viewing the LAB leader far more positively than you normally expect and Starmer only gets 33% of Tories voters disapproving of him which compares with 76% of LAB voters disapproving of Johnson.

Normally you expect to see high levels of disapproval both ways with CON and LAB backers being highly partisan in their view of the opposing leader.

Mike Smithson


Why Dominic Cummings Should resign (from a fan)

May 23rd, 2020

A guest slot from Richard Tyndall

First a declaration of my view of Dominic Cummings. 

I am a huge fan both of the man himself, of what he has tried to achieve over many years, and of his successes as a political advisor and brains behind the Leave campaign. So it should be clear that my views on the Durham-gate affair are not based on personal antipathy towards him. In an ideal world I would want nothing more than for him to stay as Chief of Staff at No 10 for the next 4 years. 

Sadly I do not think that is now a tenable position. 

There has been lots of debate over the last 24 hours about the rights and wrongs of Cummings’ actions and what the consequences should be. These have been broadly but not exclusively along the expected fault lines of pro and anti-Brexit, pro and anti-Johnson and Left and Right. What most of the arguments have done is mixed up three distinct lines of debate into a single position of attack or defence. So I think it is worthwhile unravelling those three strands of argument.

Firstly there is the argument of whether or not Cummings was right to do what he did from a personal point of view of doing what was best for his family. This has been the primary line of defence from those seeking to absolve him of wrong doing but it was actually ydoethur – who is no fan of Cummings – who took the measured view on this. If Cummings felt that he was best protecting his family by taking them to Durham so his child could be cared for by relatives then he was completely right to do so. I suspect that almost all of us, if we genuinely believed that our families well-being was being put at risk, would have taken the same decision. He may have been wrong in his assessment but there is no point trying to second guess someone trying to do their best for their family in a time of crisis. So I have nothing but sympathy on this point. 

However I do not consider it to be a valid defence.  

The second line of argument – and the one I think is most important when deciding the rights and wrongs of Cummings’ behaviour – is whether or not what he did was best for the good governance of the country and the safety of the population.  Like it or not, Cummings is at the heart of power, helping to frame decisions that have massive consequences for the whole country including, in these extraordinary times,  literally matters of life and death. His actions cannot help but undermine the message the Government has been trying to hammer home for months now. And in undermining the message, he has undermined the whole Government strategy,  the apparent rule of law and the safety of tens of thousands of people who might now believe that it is reasonable and safe to ignore the Government guidance. This is not a matter of politics but of basic good governance and on that basis Cummings has failed entirely.  

That does not mean Cummings should not have done what he did. One reason why I and many others recognise we could never be in positions of power is because we could never put the good of the country before the good of our own close family. And whilst it might be rare, there are times when one has to make that choice when you are at the heart of government. What Cummings should have done, having chosen family over duty, is to resign. It would have shown he knew that he was wrong to have undermined the Government message and that there are consequences to making these difficult decisions. Instead what he ash tried to do is square the circle and claim that doing something because it was best for his family means he can ignore his duty to the country as a whole.  That is an untenable position. 

Finally, and to my mind least important, is the politics of it all. This of course is what will ultimately decide whether Cummings stays or goes. The Government are hoping this is the proverbial storm in a teacup and by this time next week the whole news cycle will have moved on. The Opposition are hoping it does not but are also not necessarily going to rush and push for Cummings to go. They will be banking on him being far more of a liability to the Government staying in power as damaged goods than being sacked to draw a line under the issue. This makes the whole thing difficult to call in terms of Cummings’ survival. But to my mind at least this is immaterial. The question as to whether he will survive may be difficult to call. The question as to whether he should survive, for me at least, is very, very clear. 

For the good of the country and the future health of countless citizens, he should go now.   

Richard Tyndall  

Richard has been a longstanding PBer



Team Boris should be very worried about the first Cummings polling from YouGov which goes very much against what he did

May 23rd, 2020

The political splits here should be worrying for Number 10. By backing Cummings they are going very much against what voters think .

Thus looking at the party splits a majority of CON voters think he was wrong while Leave voters split 45% to 37% that he should resign.

No doubt we’ll see more polling in the next few hours.

Mike Smithson


The Cummings Durham trip during the lockdown – the reaction continues

May 23rd, 2020


Who loves Dom?

May 23rd, 2020

Cummings has burnt too many bridges to survive committing the cardinal British political sin: hypocricy

25 January 2016 is not a date that has gone down in history. Despite that, the events of that day were critical to Britain voting to leave the EU, with all that’s meant since. That morning, Dominic Cummings was summoned to a meeting that was intended to remove him from running the Vote Leave campaign.

The meeting did not turn out as its board intended. Cummings responded by asserting that key senior Vote Leave staff as well as a good deal of the rest of the office, would walk were he sacked; assertions that a few quick phone calls validated. In the face of losing pretty much their whole staff less than five months before the referendum day, they backed down. The rest is well known: the data mining, the social media campaigns, the £350m/week, the signing up of Gove to Leave, and the Boris Johnson – without Cummings at its head, there’s every chance that Leave would have lost (probably not by much but lost all the same).

The crucial point here though is that Cummings needed leverage to see off the coup, in the form of support from his Vote Leave colleagues; support he was confident he would get. It was all very well him being rude to the MPs who were notionally his bosses because ultimately, they didn’t have the power to remove him and once the point had been proven, he could ignore them at will.

This is a lesson he appears to have forgotten. Since ascending the heights of Boris Johnson’s key advisor, he’s retained his legendary rudeness and contempt for norms but without any obvious sign of building up the sort of Praetorian Guard that saved him at Vote Leave. He has a patron, of course – and a very powerful one at that, in the form of the Prime Minister. That, however, may not be enough for at least three reasons.

Firstly, a political patron has to balance the value of retaining their valued adviser against the damage that keeping him does. Johnson’s own political position is strong for now and he won’t be brought down even if he retains Cummings. Doing so, however, would spend valuable political capital with both the public and with MPs; capital the PM might not want to spend.

Secondly, neither the PM nor Cummings seem on top of their game at the moment – perhaps for health reasons. Cummings may well have come up with the “Stay home; protect the NHS; save lives” slogan: it certainly has his feel about it. There would be a deep irony if so. But that apart, the government hasn’t been co-ordinated recently, messages have been mixed, policies have had to be U-turned (the NHS immigrant charges, for example – an obvious bad policy to anyone with any political nous), and the media game is slipping badly. Any Odyssean Project seems still-born. So if he’s not doing much useful, is the pain worth it?

But most of all, Cummings is guilty of that greatest of British sins: hypocrisy. When people are prevented from attending the funerals of loved ones, from meeting critically ill family members, from all sorts of normal interactions in the interests of preserving the nation’s health, he – who quite possibly wrote the slogan that sums up the government’s strategy in eight words – not only didn’t stay home but didn’t stay home when he had Covid-19 symptoms. That kind of hypocrisy is not forgiven by the public.

Nor will forgiveness easily be extended to a protective patron who grants his friends special favours when livelihoods (and indeed lives) are being lost on a great scale. Such matters are not always critical but nor are they necessarily forgotten and they will continue to weigh in the balance.

The only way people usually survive such scandals is if they are effectively unsackable, as Cummings was in January 2016. He no longer has that ultra-loyal bodyguard – and even if he did, he’s in a different position now and is less important to Number 10 than he was to Vote Leave. I don’t see how he survives this. And I don’t see why he should.

David Herdson


Dom Cumming alleged to have lockdown rules by travelling to Durham when he shouldn’t

May 22nd, 2020