Fear is at a high point in Britain at the moment and with very good reason. There is much to be frightened of as it turns out that Covid-19 has been quicker to learn from experience than bumbling Boris Johnson and his third-eleven team during a calamitous year in which they have zig-zagged between panic and complacency.
A process of mutation akin to natural selection of the fittest has produced a more virulent variant of the virus better able to invade its human hosts. This swift improvement in its ability to be spread contrasts with the repeated stumbles of the Johnson government since it first underestimated the epidemic in February and March.
Fear is an inescapable part of any life-threatening epidemic. This has always been true of the great outbreaks of disease in the past from bubonic plague to cholera and polio. The danger of death and injury during an epidemic is more pervasive than in wartime.
Much of the sorry saga of the British government’s shambolic response to the pandemic is about its inept and counter-productive manipulation of public fears. At the start of the year, it tried to downplay them because it underestimated the threat and half-opted – it is a government that does everything by halves – for “herd immunity”. Johnson attended the England v Wales rugby match on 7 March and allowed the Cheltenham Festival attended by 250,000 people go ahead three days later.
Selling herd immunity requires downplaying public fears about the gravity of the illness. The message being sent by those mass gatherings in March was that there was nothing much to worry about. Fortunately, people did not believe it, as they watched governments locking down all over Europe. By the time the British government, panicked by forecasts of hundreds of thousands of deaths, did impose a lockdown on 23 March, people were generally before them in wanting to close down the country.