This morning we woke to the news of an intervention by Donald Trump. Even by his standards it was astonishing.
Having just emerged from three days in hospital, where he received a cocktail of steroids and experimental drugs beyond the luck and resources of almost all his compatriots, he made this announcement to the American people: “Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life.”
Set aside for a moment the sheer crassness of downplaying a virus which has killed 210,000 Americans. Let us compare it to something closer to home.
On Sunday, the BBC’s Andrew Marr invited Boris Johnson to discuss his own policy on coronavirus. The prime minister said: “What we want is for people to act fearlessly but with common sense.”
So proud of the apparent new slogan, he then repeated it.
Trump at least was plain in his dishonesty, as he has been throughout. Covid is a threat to his re-election and he must either ignore it or attempt to turn it to his political advantage.
Johnson, in contrast, is not trying to win anything, but to save himself. That requires him to cover his bases. And so while the president, as ever, expressed himself more coarsely than his British counterpart, their messages were strikingly familiar: we have nothing to fear.
“The thing we need most, in Britain and the United States, is leadership. Its total absence may be the most frightening thing of all.”
Except we do. Fear is central not simply to our own experience of the virus, but each government’s strategy to tackle it.
The supremacy of fear is one policy: it requires a full shutdown of society and the economy, or our personal life, until the threat subsides.
Lack of fear is another policy: it dictates that life must be lived virtually as normal, both publicly and privately.
The problem is that you can’t have both.
Johnson’s slogan fails on multiple counts. How can you behave fearlessly and with common sense? The two instincts are often in direct conflict.
Common sense is about making judgements for oneself. But it also comes from an awareness of risk, which is based on fear. Nobody recommends a “fearless” attitude to stepping out into the road. Indeed a valid purpose of restrictions is to instil fear.
If people are truly fearless then they will host large indoor gatherings, travel regularly and not wear masks. That might once have seemed like common sense too, but not anymore.
The other difficulty is that Johnson’s own policies have removed the option of either fearlessness or common sense. You can’t be fearless and host a large indoor gathering. You can’t use common sense and host six people at a distanced family picnic. Never mind sloganising about fearlessness and common sense: in many cases the government is now criminalising them.
The worst element is the message Johnson sent – in that people will hear whatever they want. Those who wish to live normally will feel more emboldened to do so, and take fewer risks.
Those with anxiety will remember the virus’s lethality and rapid spread and deem it “common sense” to lock down. In other words, Johnson has either confused people or reinforced old behaviour. As public health messaging, it is at best useless and at worst actively harmful.
We can probably guess what Johnson was trying to say: that we shouldn’t be crippled by fear but should use caution. There is a balancing act between a full lockdown and fully normal life, and every government in the world has tried to find it. But that message was completely garbled.
There are valid and pressing questions for the government. Are people to get on with their lives or aren’t they? Are we going in and out of lockdown or aren’t we? Are ministers pursuing a zero-Covid strategy until we eradicate it or are we going to adapt our lives to accommodate it for the foreseeable future? Johnson, of course, has no idea. In line with his whole political career, the real policy here is that there isn’t one.
And so we come to the real problem behind Johnson’s empty messaging. We have no guidance and no leadership. Nobody seems to be in control. That is partly a question of Johnson’s character and partly one of his deeds.
The government cannot escape the ghosts of the Barnard Castle eye test, compulsory returns to offices, “patriotic” trips to the pub, eating out to help out, the “protective rings around care homes” and constantly changing, contradictory and dishonest communications. I
If people are acting “fearlessly” and endangering lives it is because Johnson gave them tacit licence to do so. If people do what they want it’s because the government led by example.
Individuals, like governments, can resolve to be “fearless” if they choose. But these are frightening times and the threat is not abating.
A good government would acknowledge that fear even while offering reassurance. It would demonstrate clear strategies and policies to live our lives even as this frightening event continued.
It would, above everything, present clarity, honesty and long-term planning. This is not a good government. We don’t know what we’re doing because they don’t.
The thing we need most, in Britain and the United States, is leadership. Its total absence may be the most frightening thing of all.
Jonathan Lis is deputy director of the pro-EU think tank British Influence, and a political writer and commentator.