Britain has traded individual liberty for a terrifying state omnishambles

Coronavirus
Our leadership has crumbled Credit: Bob Cartoons

The public is starting to realise it has been duped into accepting the unacceptable

This isn’t the deal we bargained for when we acquiesced in the shutdown of the economy and mass house arrest: individual sacrifice in return for collective shambles. In a way, the lack of pushback against lockdown has been remarkable. Perhaps our love of liberty has been bludgeoned by human rights culture, our confidence to question punctured by elite snobbery over who is allowed to comment on scientific debate. Still, suspicion is rising that we have been duped into accepting the unacceptable. After allowing crisis to spiral into chaos, No 10 seems too ensnared in strategic confusion, managerial dysfunction – and, intriguingly, a nannying moralism – to engineer even the most blunderous exit route.

Its new tactic of distracting us with a cover up isn’t going well. On Sunday, Michael Gove said we were carrying out 10,000 tests a day. Only after some disputed this figure did officials admit that we are closer to 8,000; it will take weeks to reach the target of 25,000.

The precise reason for this failure remains a mystery, but a picture is building of an anarchic strategic U-turn, distribution cock-ups, and rivalry between NHS penpushers over control of testing data. Meanwhile, reports from medics who have little or no protective gear are widespread. In an atmospere of tightly controlled unaccountability redolent of the Chinese Communist Party, apparatchiks have been dutifully silent on the risks mandarins expect ill‑equipped doctors to take for the greater good. Nor have we been told in sufficient detail about what the hold-up is on testing or equipment – though Tory politicians weakly sidemouth that they didn’t foresee a spike in global demand and issues with supply chains.

It is hard not to despair at the PM’s inability to boldly choose between two politically costly solutions: immediately stamp out the virus with border closures and even greater social distancing – which many scientists say should have happened much earlier to be effective, as for every week you delay, the death toll increases five-fold – or back herd immunity to keep the economy going and take the heat for it.

Instead, we witnessed a half-hearted effort at herd immunity, which the Government apparently agreed to only on the basis of dud “expert” advice that it was achievable with 20 per cent of the country being infected rather than the more realistic 80 per cent. This was abruptly followed by a halfway house of indefinite lockdown after the horse had bolted.

Essentially, the Government crumbled, after Downing Street used science experts stunningly badly. All the more dispiriting given that Dominic Cummings has for years plotted how to cure Whitehall of this very affliction. Perhaps he struggled to convince colleagues that the purpose of the experts was to explain medical scenarios and unsettled science debates – not decide policy. A world-leading epidemiologist can hypothesise about the best way to eliminate a virus, but he can tell you nothing about the link between lockdown, poverty, and death rates.

One wonders also whether Britain has suffered from the prejudices of an aide who considers economics a bogus practice – in his view, its quaintly antiquated methods render it the scientific world’s disciplinary equivalent of Cuba. No  10’s failure to bring economists into the heart of the debate was even more of an oversight given our emasculated Chancellor.

All this is depressing enough, but it gets darker still. Acts of individual sacrifice may be warranted in an emergency, but, as the public is coming to learn, these risk being repaid not only through collective shambles but collective tyranny. We have morphed into a police state, where officers enforce rules about what groceries we buy with no legal basis. The Government claims its draconian restrictions takes their precedent from the 1984 Public Health Act and the 2004 Civil Contingencies Act, but their sweeping scope appears to do no such thing.

On top of this, a curiosity: our state, it seems, has more concern for our virtual liberties than our physical liberties. The Government rushed through emergency powers to keep us at home, but it hasn’t rushed through legislation allowing tech companies to handle our data in new ways for emergency tracing measures without penalty. Instead it has opted to build a clunky, voluntary public-sector app.

The reason for this paradox is simple: the nanny state aspires to both curtail our freedoms and pose as the only entity that can protect those freedoms from powerful rivals. Even in a moment of crisis, it cannot suppress these grasping instincts. Misgivings about online surveillance aside, many would prefer to give Google greater data access with sunset clauses than sit at home watching the economy crash. Such a view is, however, difficult for politicians who love to dress up big state 2.0 in moralising discourses about the internet’s dark forces.

Another farcical twist, perhaps, in this animal balloon of a presentation of serious leadership. And yet the public’s patience is already wearing thin. The PM must get his act together: this cannot continue.