Getting out of lockdown: Between idealism and pragmatism

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Followers of Faithroots will know that I’ve been pushing hard at the question “Is there a way of helping us get back to full in person corporate worship sooner rather than later.”  That is the context for any discussion on the proposed vaccine/immunity passporting scheme.  Now, I want to be clear here that my long term political/philosophical leanings are more to the libertarian end of the spectrum. It’s just that I happen to think that any political leanings should be subordinate to the cause of the Gospel.  So, to be clear, I’m not a great fan of everything that goes with track and trace and immunity certification. Hence, I’ve argued that anything proposed should be carefully controlled and in place only for a very short time.

Now, there have been some strong voices the other way from people who have said that they could never agree to such schemes. I don’t have a problem with that.  It’s just that all I ask is that we keep talking about how we can move towards full opening and that if the passport approach isn’t right, then that we come up with other suggestions.  Now, what I’ve found when I’ve put the conversation in those terms is things.

First of all, the response has been that people don’t see a problem in their context because they have the option of meeting outdoors in a rural setting or they have a building significantly larger than the congregation so that ongoing social distancing with the whole church family present isn’t a problem.  Secondly people have acknowledged that the expectation in their congregations is that the June reopening date will be to something resembling normality.  Therefore, all we need to do is wait a little bit longer and all will be okay. You can also see why people then see the use of immunity certification as something that will exclude.

The problem I have is that this does not fit with what we are hearing.  The constant message has been that those influencing the decision makers and those making the decisions expect social distancing, masks and other measures to be in place for some time to come. This means that even if you have a space luxury, you still have to make decisions about whether or not you want your congregation to remain masked and silent potentially into next year. 

This is where the pragmatism and idealism tension comes in.  You see, I lean to the end of the spectrum that is a little bit sceptical of the harshest measures.  I argued some time back that all of our experience and all of our logic tells us that we should not need to continue with masks, social distancing and silence for much longer.  We have a vaccination programme in place where over 50% of the population have received at least one jab and therefore have significant protection against serious illness.  This means that the most vulnerable to hospitalisation and death now have significant protection and therefore, the job is done. The task that the Prime Minister set us when we first introduced measures was to flatten the curve and to shield the NHS so that it could keep functioning without its capacity being hit.

I think that all the evidence today points in the direction that we should be there. Even if there is another wave of cases, then it is highly unlikely that people will get seriously ill to the point of needing hospitalisation. The NHS should be able to keep functioning. Life should be able to continue as normal. Does that mean that we won’t see anyone getting sick from COVID again? No it doesn’t and indeed some people may get very sick and die. However, we cannot eliminate sickness and death.

So, the idealist in me says that I think we should be re-opening society much quicker than what is happening.  However the pragmatist in me recognises that this may not be possible. There are two reasons for that. The first is obvious.  I am not a virologist or epidemiologist.  My view point is based on reading, observation and reasoning but I don’t have the specific knowledge needed to make a final call on this. That was a point made forcibly at the start of the pandemic though as time has gone on, we’ve all forgotten this as we’ve become armchair experts.  I can challenge, ask questions, tell the experts that this makes no sense but in the end they are responsible for making the call.

Secondly, the choice I make between idealism and pragmatism at some point comes up against the choices and decisions that the Government and the scientists are making. First of all, ideally, I’m sure Boris would love to see everything reopened now. However, pragmatically he has to pay attention to risks. This article compares the experience of Israel and Chile and shows that simply rushing to reopen as soon as vaccination happens without some orderly plan has led to an uptick in Chile whilst Israel have used a form of vaccine passport to get things moving again.

Secondly, the Government have to listen to scientists around the country because public confidence will also be dependent upon what they are saying. I think this may reflect a little on why we are seeing talk of much longer term restrictions. In an ideal world, they would love to reach zero COVID in this country. It’s not hubristic to say that.  We’ve managed to subdue other diseases to that extent. However, such a decision comes with a cost.  The cost-benefit analysis of achieving zero COVID may be a little more obvious in places like New Zealand with lower population density and less through put of visitors. However, here the cost of working towards full suppression is higher.  Can we afford that?

The official word is that “no we cannot hit zero COVID.” And yet, what we have increasingly seen is that the language of those seeking to influence decisions has subtly shifted in that direction, away from the pragmatic to the ideal.  Now, personally I would prefer a more open debate and conversation, evidence and data led about what we are aiming for and why. However, whether or not that will happen I think we are stuck with a situation that the policies are also influenced by the background chatter of the idealists and so we are likely to be living with restrictions for much longer.

This means we have to make some decisions.  It means the constraints are going to be there for a long time and that it is unlikely that we will be crowding into church, chatting freely to one another and singing out our praises loudly anytime soon. In that context we need to keep thinking hard about what we can do to get as close as possible to in person gathering in a way that honours God and the Gospel enabling people to worship and gives the opportunity for others to hear the good news.