There can be no doubt about the seriousness of the crisis facing us all - across the Globe. Hundreds of thousands of us, quite possibly millions will catch the disease and it will have a greater or lesser effect on us. For many it will be not much worse than a spot of ‘flu; for others - especially the elderly and vulnerable, it may well be a great deal more serious than that. It has already had a huge effect on our way of life: on international travel; on the Stock Exchange and money markets. Its worldwide effects are already similar to great events of recent years - 9/11; 7/7; Iraq; Afghanistan; the banking collapse; the death of Princess Diana. These are all huge milestones in world history, as will be COVID-19.
I remain, however, of the view that either of two currently popular reactions (both of which are well represented in my postbag) are misplaced. To those who ‘pooh pooh’ it as “a bit of a cold”, I would just say that you are demonstrably wrong. This thing is deadly serious. Yet to those who advocate panic reactions of all kinds, I would urge caution. An over-reaction now could well make it all worse rather than better. Unless you seriously are proposing that we should all go back to our homes and sit there for three or four months doing nothing at all, which would be unsustainable, and boring in equal measure, then we need to find a route by which some kind of normal life continues, yet with suitable precautions in place.
The course of the epidemic here is about 4 weeks behind that of Italy. All of the predictions seem to be of a peak in April or perhaps May. If we were therefore to ban travel, close offices and schools, close Britain down in the way they did in China and now Italy, we would be doing so too soon. The virus would still take its course, but we would have run out of mechanisms to try to contain it. Do we really want our children at home for 3 months? Do we really want to cancel exams, close businesses, ruin lives, when such extreme action would be to go against the careful advice of the scientific and medical experts?
So it seems to me that the Government has got the balance just right in their response. They have attempted to make the public aware of the health risks, without causing mass panic. Common sense advice about personal hygiene, and about self-isolation if you have symptoms, seem to me to be pragmatic good sense. The key to our behaviour should not be ‘How do I avoid getting it?’; but ‘Imagining that I may now have it, what do I do to avoid passing it on to other people, including my own friends and family?’
All of this will change as the course of the epidemic develops. It may well be that in April or May closing schools, universities, sports matches, public gatherings of all kinds may be advised by the health and scientific professionals. They are assessing their response on a daily basis and will take the necessary action at the appropriate time.
Keep Calm and Carry On was good advice in the Blitz. It’s a very British way of doing things, but it just may be appropriate now.