In terms of volume, the COVID-19 debate in the UK is dominated by two extremes. These tend to reflect traditional political divides, the libertarian right versus the liberal left, the Brexiteers versus the Remainers. It is as though COVID-19 is another proxy for old battles. On the onside, lockdown obsessives insist that nothing less than semi-permanent, ultra-strict lockdown will suffice. For them, everything the Government has done has been too little too late. The notoriously cautious SAGE minutes, no doubt reflecting a range of views are reinterpreted as forthright, single view dogma. The wicked, dithering Tories are not listening to the science.
On the other side sit the OVID sceptics, this includes those who believe the whole thing is an overblown scare, possibly a conspiracy, perhaps to drive us back into the hands of the wicked bureaucrats we have only just escaped. Others accept the disease is there but suspect it isn’t that bad, no worse than a seasonal flu and would be best dealt with a bit of Sweden style live and let live whilst the young build up natural herd immunity. On this side of the spectrum, the impression appears to be that we have suddenly been taken over by a merciless group of authoritarian tyrants – which what ever you think of Boris would require something of a midlife U-Turn in temperament and political philosophy. But there you go, it was 2020 last year so anything is possible.
At times it seems that the dominant voices from the Church have signed up for either camp and I have cautioned before that we need to be careful that we need to watch that our political sympathies don’t take over dictating our response rather than the facts and our trust in the Lord.
My own instinct is that there is a mass of people who sit somewhere between the two extremes and that the Government itself is somewhere in that range, often trying to navigate a course between a rock and a hard place. This doesn’t mean I suddenly consider Boris to be some virtuous saint who is making selfless decisions and getting everything right but it does give me some sympathy for him and it probably proves that he never was simply the British Trump. Life is more complex than that.
However, the problem with the noise of the debate is that you can guarantee the type of questions asked by journalists and other politicians over the next few days. These will divide again between questions along the lines of “why didn’t you act sooner and tougher” versus “why are you stealing our national liberties?” Meanwhile the occasional gotcha moment will bring our attention to some wicked celebrity, official or politician who has broken the rules. In the meantime, I worry that the questions that need to ask and that many of us in the centre of the debate would like answered. These are questions form people who recognise that the disease is serious and tough measures needed but also are concerned that not enough attention is being given to looking at why and how things are happening and offering careful reasoning and evidence for decisions.
So as I’ve done at previous points in the pandemic, I’ve collated some questions in the hope that someone with the ear of those in power might get to ask them. From past experience, I have little hope that these questions will get picked up but if enough of us keep asking these types of questions, who knows, maybe the debate will change. Maybe this will stop being a surrogate for Brexit and the old Corbyn v the Tories debate and we will start thinking together as a society about how we beat this thing. Anyway, it doesn’t do any harm to ask so here goes.
- Are we sure that we fully understand the causes of the current spike. Too be sure there are correlations with new variants but also with the pre-Christmas rush and whatever restrictions were in place, the reality of parties and intermingling over the festive season.
- Do we know the level and impact of non-compliance? Throughout the pandemic, we have had constant reports of breaches of rules, crowded beaches in the summer, crowded shopping centres in the winter. There also appear to have been specific clusters of the virus focused on geographical areas and sometimes spikes seemed to be traced back to a specific factory etc. Do we have hard data on this and have we looked at how this might be affecting the shape of the virus?
- Do we know if Tier 4 (plus) measures were having an effect (or even tier 3)? If not, why not and can we be sure this isn’t simply more of the same? If they were then why cut them short?
- Has the Government been pressurised into a [political decision to go into lockdown, from European neighbours or to keep pace with the devolved powers? At the same time, the Leader of the Opposition and Nicola Sturgeon need to give full disclosure, did they know what the Government was planning prior to making calls or pushing forward their own plans?
- What is the education strategy? What exactly is the driver for cancelling exms in the summer? The necessity last year was driven by a lockdown at the time. We do not expect this to be the case at the moment unless the Government have other as yet unspoken concerns. There may be some concerns about the fairness of assessing students after a disrupted year but this still raises questions that if education has been disrupted, it isn’t just grades that are at risk, education is supposed to be about actual knowledge and skills. Given that a major motivation for pressing on t this stage for those in Year 11 is the exams to come at the end, how does the Government plan to provide assessment that will check learning outcomes and help teachers to motivate students to keep going? What plans are in place to ensure that young people do not suffer long term educational harm because of disruption? If education is so crucial has the Government investigated other possible avenues to get schools open such as prioritising vaccines to teachers and to students, especially in the critical exam year age groups?
I don’t expect answers to my questions but I believe it is right to keep asking them. It is important that there are people willing to take the virus seriously but also to ask the challenging questions. Are there questions you would add?