shoppers with masks
Coronavirus has divided society. A chasm of mutual misunderstanding and resentment has opened up.

On one side are people who want to be allowed to make their own judgments about risk, in the light of their own vulnerabilities and those of the people around them. On the other side are people who think their safety depends on coercing their fellow citizens into accepting the judgment of Government Ministers.

Despite the optimism created by the vaccines, powerful voices are still exploiting public fears to keep us locked up for longer and impose distancing rules indefinitely in pursuit of the mirage of zero Covid.

There is concern that medical scientists are moving the goalposts, changing their objectives in a way that would keep us locked up for longer, perhaps indefinitely.

Those of us who point to the staggering collateral cost of such policies are drowned out by outbursts of emotion and abuse from people who behave as if nothing matters except reducing the Covid death toll.

As a society, we have been urged to suppress the most basic instinct of the human spirit - our interaction with each other. In the process, we turned a public health crisis into something much worse: a public health crisis AND an economic, social and educational crisis.

Our economy is being laid waste, with small businesses snuffed out and job prospects destroyed for a generation of young people. Yet no society ever reduced deaths by making itself poorer.

We have shut down our cities and crippled a once-flourishing musical, artistic and sporting culture.

We have created an acute crisis of mental health among the young. We are depriving children of their education, perhaps the most important benefit that the state can give them, at untold cost for their future.

We are locking the elderly into islands of loneliness and wretchedness, depriving them of the stimulus of human contact. Dementia - a bigger killer than Covid-19 - is hitting unprecedented levels.

None of this is the result of the disease. It is all due to the lockdown.

To escape this situation, we need to understand how we got into it.

Covid-19 is serious, but it is no worse than the scenario for which governments have planned for years. A pandemic caused by a new respiratory disease has topped the National Risk Register since 2008. In 2017, it assumed that a new pathogen might cause 750,000 deaths.

The principles of any response were set out in a 2011 Department of Health strategy.

They were designed to ensure the minimum of disruption. The aim was to shield the sick and the vulnerable, not isolate the healthy and economically active.

It was to 'encourage those who are well to carry on with their normal lives for as long and as far as that is possible'. The Government would not close borders or stop mass gatherings. Lockdown was not even an option. Minutes of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) show that the same policies were the basis of its advice to Ministers right up to the moment last March when the first lockdown was decided.

On March 13, the behavioural scientists had advised 'citizens should be treated as rational actors, capable of taking decisions for themselves and managing personal risk'.

But then Ministers discarded a decade of planning in a few hours and embarked on a sinister and untried experiment with the lives of millions. They ordered a national lockdown which was both coercive and indiscriminate.

That decision, I believe, was nothing to do with the science. They were panicked to act by seeing recently ordered lockdowns in Italy, France and Spain, following the lead of totalitarian China. Ministers seemed convinced that the public would blame them if they failed to do what other nations were doing.

Panic is infectious. This is the root of most of our current problems. What's more, as this was not in line with long-standing policy, there was no contingency planning or impact assessment. The Government had no idea of the economic, social or educational consequences, or its impact on mental health or diseases such as cancer.

Generally, it is a sound principle of government not to make drastic decisions without knowing where they might lead. But our Government crashed into the lockdown seemingly blind to everything but the headline Covid death toll.

The most serious consequence has been to make it impossible to concentrate containment measures on the old and clinically vulnerable.

The Government has ignored these critical facts in its obsession with coercion. Ministers have never been honest about this. Their message was that we were all equally at risk. But this was never true.

They selected as proof unrepresentative young deaths and presented them as if they were the norm. The BBC and ITV amplified the message daily, crowding out the widespread distress inflicted by lockdown.

Meanwhile, we've been told the policy has been to protect the NHS from being overwhelmed. It must be said that the frontline staff are beyond praise but the NHS is a public service which exists to protect our national life, not an established church. To treat its limitations as a reason for suspending our national life is a perversion of its purpose.

It also diverts attention from where responsibility lies. If hospitals are overwhelmed, it is not our fault for getting ill and needing them. The responsibility lies with successive governments which have mismanaged and underfunded the NHS for years.

The number of NHS beds has fallen continuously since 2000. Despite years of pandemic planning, the UK has by far the lowest intensive care capacity in Europe. In a bad winter, the NHS is overwhelmed even without Covid-19.

Meanwhile, the response of Ministers is: 'We are guided at every step by the science.'

However, scientists are interested only in science. The duty of politicians is much wider. It is to weigh the public health risks of the disease against the economic and social damage done by the countermeasures. Hiding behind scientists is a dereliction of that duty.

A large part of the problem is the personality of Boris Johnson - a public relations artist, not a policy-maker. He is guided by what he thinks public opinion will want. He is a follower, not a leader.

We have witnessed constant U-turns and lurchings from pillar to post. Eat Out To Help Out was followed by the enforced closure of pubs and restaurants. Schools continued, but were then shut. There was the absurdity of tiers being relaxed for Christmas Day, only to be reimposed three days later.

So where are we heading now?

The vaccine is an impressive achievement of science, but, as with the lockdown, it will not eradicate the virus. It took nearly two centuries after the discovery of a vaccine for smallpox to disappear.

The virus is here to stay, as the Government's scientific advisers are beginning to admit. Viruses spontaneously mutate all the time, whatever governments do. Some will inevitably evade our defences.

The rhetoric of suppression evades the reality that we must learn how to live with disease, as our ancestors have always done.

We now have the spectacle of Ministers and their advisers saying that people who have had the jab should not regard it as a reason for mixing with others, just in case they can still spread the disease. We are also being told that those who have already had the disease may not be immune, although the evidence suggests this is nonsense.

Foreign travel is being prohibited, turning us into a hermit island on the basis we cannot know what mutations may be lurking out there. The logic of these policies is that we must be locked down for ever simply because the world is a dangerous place.

This will go on until either Ministers pluck up some moral courage or else enough people realise the folly and destructiveness of our present course to change the public mood. When that happens, we will be astonished we ever tried to suppress risks that are inseparable from life itself. We will look back in shame on the damage wantonly inflicted on our society, our civilisation and our children.

Then, hopefully, we can rebuild a world in which limits are placed on the power of an irresponsible state to direct people's lives.