The UK government has come in for a lot of criticism for its response to COVID-19. Some of it has been spot on, some of it less so and some of it I would suggest completely unfairly. The reality is that a Global pandemic hitting on the back of a decade of austerity was always going to be a challenge to meet. Then in a western democratic context, a government was likely to find itself in a no-win situation with divide between those who wanted firmer and more authoritarian measures and those who resented any instruction, guidance or regulation. Of course I suspect most people will sit somewhere on a moderating line between the two extremes but the mood is often shaped by the noisy minorities in any debate.
The Government have made mistakes. The Dominic Cummings affair was a disaster, we should have secured borders early to get effective quarantining in place. Our track and trace has been a bit of a mess to say the least and the failure to protect our care homes was disgraceful. But a lot of the time, they’ve simply tried to navigate an ever changing situation and do the best they can in the situation.
When it comes to the Christmas guidance, there has been a lot of criticism and a lot of mockery. However, I not convinced it is fair. Of course, COVID-19 isn’t taking a break for Christmas, of course not and that’s an easy attack line. But does that mean that the Government wasw wrong to relax restrictions a little over the festive period.
I think not and here is why. What I want to suggest is that if we think of the situation as being that there are strict restrictions in order to suppress the virus and the Government suddenly wants to take the lid off then that would be ridiculously foolish. But that is not the stage we are at. The suppression phases were the two lockdowns and we are now in a management phase. This means that rules have to be applied to all sorts of circumstances. We are able to meet as a church but there are restrictions and guidance that limit capacity and activities. Schools and shops can open but with restrictions.
So what we now have is an example of another set of guidance. This is guidance about how to celebrate a festival in this phase of a pandemic. Yes, the measures are less strict for the festival. However, the assumption is that they will happen in a context where people are acting responsibly overall. They happen in the context of the stricter long term measures.
So we have permission to meet with three families. However, the super-spreader parties and pub crawls are not permitted. Furthermore, we are encouraged to make those decisions cautiously and carefully. This means for example that it isn’t a case of dashing up to nans after the work do and hugging her. It means assessing the specific risk for individual family members in terms of vulnerability. It means using the next 5 days to make sure that you have avoided other social interactions that could create risk. The end result is that hopefully families where there is a desperate need for companionship and contact are prepared for doing this in as safe a way as possible.
There is a further defence and it is this. If we want to see measures lifted then actually, it is best to do so in a phased way. One way of phasing in the opening up of the country again is to try something in a managed way for a few days. To be sure we may see a post Christmas spike in cases but this will be temporary. On the other hand, what if we don’t see such a spike? Or what if spikes are clearly caused by other factors? Well then we will have trialled something that could be introduced on a more permanent basis over the coming months in order to enable an easing of the pain.
This of course does depend on us acting responsibly and not pushing the boundaries of freedom but making best use of the opportunity we have now.
 There will be different views about whether the austerity was necessary and about how well it was managed. My personal view was that coming out of the credit crunch, banking collapse and debt crisis it was necessary to get national finances back under control but whether this was always managed in the best way, both in terms of protecting the vulnerable and achieving the goal is up for debate.