You’re getting the lockdown you deserve
The only remaining options for the UK are lockdowns or doing nothing at all
I came to Heathrow on the red-eye two weeks ago. I had falsified the phone numbers on the mandatory Passenger Locator Form, and printed it out in advance as instructed, but no one asked to check it. There were no temperature checks, as there are at airports in Germany and Italy. In the Arrivals’ hall, a group of customs’ officers lounged slobbishly on a counter, bantering and laughing without masks. But then, no one who worked at the airport was wearing a mask. I ran my passport through an ePassport gate and slipped into the country for the first time since late February.
No one in England seemed to care about regulations or elementary precautions
I never went anywhere near the address where I said I’d be quarantining. But no one from the government or the police tried to contact my hypothetical hosts. Anyway, I knew I wasn’t contagious. A few hours before my flight, I’d visited one of the many drop-in testing clinics in my city on the East Coast of the US. A swab test cost me $160 (about £120). There was no waiting, and the answer was on my mobile phone fifteen minutes later, before I had even got home. When I did get home, I checked on friends in England whose daughter had waited three days for her positive swab result, in which time her mother had caught it, and was now sitting out her three-day purgatory.
Even under normal circumstances, it is possible to transact a serious disease simply by passing through Heathrow. So, I had taken precautions and rented a flat through Homeaway in a small town near Oxford for a few days. Homeaway and the agency that managed the flat knew I was coming from America, with an American credit card and mobile number, but they made no effort to establish that I had quarantined. Neither did the staff in the Avis office in Terminal 5, or the Sofitel in Terminal 5, where I checked in for a quick nap. Then again, no one in England seemed to care about regulations or elementary precautions.
You got the government you chose, and now you’re going to get the lockdown you deserve
In the spring, the large and student-filled city where I live was one of the worst hit by the US’s first wave. But the shutdown slowed the epidemic, and since June we’ve returned, phase by phase, to a kind of normality. There is no track and trace, but efficient and affordable testing has allowed us to reopen private schools; it’s the teachers’ union that refuses to open the city schools. We wear masks in stores and the children wear them in school, where the windows are opened too. The schools provide drive-through and drop-in testing, every fortnight, and test their staff more regularly. We eat outside restaurants, not inside, because everyone knows that the virus spreads fast in unventilated and crowded environments. When, I travelled to Washington, DC for work a few weeks ago, my temperature was taken at the hotel check-in. There is no talk in the US of a second lockdown.
And while there are, I learnt this week, no supplies of the flu vaccine available in Britain for the under-65s even though it’s now the first week of November, back in America – the place which is supposed to be a total failure at virus prevention – my children got their flu jabs for free when they had their pre-school check-ups in early September, and I got mine for free at the pharmacy in the supermarket.
It was surprising, to say the least, to arrive in a country that had been just as badly affected by its first wave and find that elementary public precautions had not been taken. It was staggering to see people jamming into pubs and restaurants without masks. Bellowing into each other’s ears over the background music, without masks. Hugging and kissing at the end of the night, without masks.
A vaccine, should it ever appear, will appear too late
Now, I agree that masks are dehumanizing and smelly. I agree that, as a certain kind of lout is liberated by the act of donning a dinner suit, certain kinds of busybodies and, we must assume, perverts, are unleashed by the act of masking up. But we know that masks, along with handwashing, avoiding crowds and not picking your nose and eating it, are the easiest way of controlling the spread and sustaining what remains of social and economic life.
Compare the figures for the crowded cities of East Asia to those of small-town England. In fact, masks and elementary hygiene are the only way. A vaccine, should it ever appear, will appear too late. The only remaining options are lockdowns or doing nothing at all.
After a week, I moved to central London. I saw the same crowds of drinkers filling the pubs, the same huddles in restaurants whose ventilation was so poor that the windows had steamed up. Hardly any of the restaurants at which I sat outside asked me to scan my phone. If they did, I claimed that, as an ex-pat, I couldn’t use the track and trace app, or told them I didn’t have a phone. No one refused to serve me. No one cared. When I met friends and colleagues and explained that we’d have to sit outside, they looked at me like I was stupid. Meanwhile the hospitalization figures shot up. Two days before I left, the government announced a second lockdown.
What did the experts expect would happen when they allowed drinkers to congregate in pubs? What did the government expect when it told you to send your children back to school without masks? What did you expect as you stuffed that Pret sandwich into your face in the street without washing your hands?
The spread of the virus depends on culture
The virus is spread by social contact, often asymptomatically. Perhaps more importantly, the spread of the virus depends on culture. British culture is hard-drinking, handshaking, nose-picking, tough-it-out and muddle-through. I’ve no doubt that these were all admirable attributes in the Blitz: I’m sure many a shaky hand was steadied once its forefinger was inserted into a nostril. They are positively harmful, though, in a pandemic of this nature.
Your government has failed you. There is no possible excuse for the absence of temperature checks, for the expense and slowness of testing, for the reliance upon a track and trace app that does neither and – give it a few more weeks – for the knock-on incompetence that has held up the flu vaccine.
But large numbers of Britons have failed each other. Not just the young: I saw people of all ages taking huge risks. Is it ignorance, or a lack of courtesy to strangers, or actuarial arrogance, or alcohol dependence? All of them, I suppose, for all these things make a culture. Another part of British culture is the sterling mediocrity of its bureaucrats, who set dumb rules and then, dumber still, fail to enforce them.
This second lockdown will be an economic and social disaster. The government is spooked by the experts, and experts, as we know, are technocrats not democrats. But the experts are only getting their tyrannical way because the government has consistently failed to do its job, which is to translate the experts’ predictions into workable policies, and because so much of the population has acted recklessly and selfishly.
You got the government you chose. And now you’re going to get the lockdown you deserve.
Rupert Smith is a well known writer who lives on the US east coast but regularly visits the UK. His name has been changed to protect the guilty.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe