There’s an apt and vivid phrase which Boris Johnson uses in private to describe a mood that has engulfed much of the country.
He says we must beware of ‘morbid funk’. He appears to mean there is a risk of the nation being so obsessed with Covid-19, and so fearful of its consequences, that we’ll avoid embracing real life even when the danger has passed.
I wish he would use the phrase in public, though one can see why he doesn’t. Professor Chris Whitty would have the vapours. Nicola Sturgeon would blow a fuse. Sir Keir Starmer would declare sententiously that it’s bad taste to accuse the British people of cowardice after all their sacrifices.
There would be endless tut-tutting on the airwaves. But the truth is that many of us are paralysed by fear. I don’t exempt myself. Only recently have I stopped wiping groceries in an admittedly cursory way, and I still give other pedestrians an unnecessarily wide berth as I pass them in the street.
Boris Johnson uses the term ‘morbid funk’ in private to describe a mood that has engulfed much of the country and created a fearful state in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic
We should look at the numbers, though. According to official figures, in the fortnight ending June 7, one person in 1,700 people had Covid-19 at any given time. I don’t think I would be sticking my neck out if I guessed that the figure has now fallen to one in 2,500, or even less, as the contagion has receded.
So the chances of catching Covid-19 are small — and of course they are even smaller if we do sensible things such as wearing masks, keeping a distance and washing our hands. Nor should we forget that, unless you are old or have underlying health conditions or are freakishly unlucky, the disease should be mild even if you catch it.
Why, then, are so many of us still gripped by fear? Because we don’t live our lives with an eye on statistics — or, to be precise, we are most of us very bad at evaluating comparative risk.
So if some persuasive people come along — in this case, Government ministers accompanied by a phalanx of gloomy scientists — who repeatedly tell us that we are in mortal danger, we are liable to take them seriously.
For my sins, I have become transfixed by the figures for Covid-19 daily fatalities released every afternoon. Yesterday the number was 184. This was a 25 per cent drop from the same time last week, though still higher than the death rate in France, Germany, Spain or Italy.
But I, and other addicts, really should kick the habit of examining these daily figures with such fascination. The fact is that most of us are far more likely to die of causes other than Covid-19, though this was not true a month ago.
Normal life has been drastically altered, with face masks now compulsory on public transport for the foreseeable future
Some 450 people die of cancer every day in the United Kingdom, and a similar number of heart and circulatory disease. About 190 certificates signed today will state that dementia or Alzheimer’s was the cause of death.
What has happened is that the Government has created a mood of fear, as it was bound to do if the lockdown announced on March 22 was going to be respected.
But although the chances of dying from the disease have greatly diminished, many of us are unable — and perhaps sometimes unwilling — to shake off this mood. Take schools, where ‘morbid funk’ is rampant thanks to obstructive and querulous teaching unions and an unsuitable Secretary of State, Gavin Williamson, who is hopelessly adrift.
Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter, a statistician at Cambridge University, has estimated that the risk to children under 15 of catching and then dying from coronavirus is one in 5.3million. They are more likely to be struck by lightning.
How many sensible parents worry about that? Admittedly, teachers — being older than their charges — are at a somewhat greater risk. But given the much-reduced prevalence of the disease, the threat to them is still minute.
And yet the teaching unions have fought the Government tooth and nail over the early resumption of schooling, and Mr Williamson has hoisted the white flag. These unions are doubtless run by bloody-minded types who love nothing more than tossing spanners into the Tory works.
But I suspect they also have a very lopsided calculation of risk as a result of being infected with a lethal new pathogen sweeping the country: excessive and unreasonable fear. Despite Boris’s colourful phrase, the Government is badly infected with the same bug.
Safety measures are now well in place, as the UK looks to get back onto its feet and recover from the huge hit felt by the coronavirus pandemic
Its main symptom is a stubborn adherence to the two-metre rule, which is still being defended by many scientists, some of whom are conducting an official review at a remarkably stately pace. Until or unless a decision is made to reduce social distancing to one metre, as recommended by the World Health Organisation, millions of children will continue to vegetate, and be robbed of a decent education.
Fifteen hundred paediatricians yesterday signed an open letter to the Prime Minister demanding that he make the reopening of schools a priority. Unless he does so, the life chances of the younger generation could be harmed for ‘years to come’, they wrote. I hope No 10 listens.
Meanwhile, as a bunch of unaccountable, risk-averse scientists scratch their heads and weigh up the relative dangers of being one or two metres apart, thousands of pubs, restaurants and cafes could go bust.
When their deliberations are concluded, I expect the verdict will be that two metres are safer than one, and they will leave it to the politicians to decide what to do. The Government, if it has any sense, will say that, with the contagion in retreat, one metre is good enough.
No doubt two metres are safer than one, though probably by a tiny margin. Three metres would be wiser. Four would carry even less danger. Or better still, let’s never go out to work or meet at all — and watch while the economy collapses, and millions of workers are thrown on the scrapheap.
After lots of mistakes, the Government is finally dealing with the curse of Covid-19, though like other scourges in the past, it’s unlikely wholly to disappear until a vaccine is found. Now we must address another disease, in its way no less insidious, which renders its victims fearful and timid — and sometimes inactive.
A worker places a sign on a Westminster street reminding people to maintain two metres apart
Dare I suggest there is a small minority among them who may not be frightened, but are natural members of the freeloading community? I am thinking of those people, their salaries mostly paid by the Government, who would rather sunbathe in the park or pop out to the newly-opened shops than confront the boring old grind of daily work.
How will we ever get out of this? With his natural optimism and sunny character, there is probably no man alive more fitted to the job of telling the patient — that’s us — that the time has come to get back to normal life, which is never risk-free.
Unfortunately Boris has had a mild bout of the fear virus himself. The time has come for him to banish Professor Whitty, and all the other know-all doomsters and gloomsters, and shout from the rooftops the slogan in his heart: This nation must not be held prisoner by morbid funk!