None of this will need explaining to the Prime Minister. Boris Johnson runs a Downing Street addicted to data, where endless polls augment his own uncanny ability to judge the twists, turns, and, yes, biases, of public mood. His instinct twinned with focus group insight is a mighty political partnership.
Normally, however, Mr Johnson revels in at least pretending to side with that instinct against the information. With the people against the experts. With his live-and-let-live inclinations against the dogmatists.
Yet at the lectern yesterday, as so often throughout this pandemic, he was forced to play the role he hates – siding with the experts against the people, rather than with the people against the experts. Reimposing restrictions, delaying easing, for all that he may protest the reverse, feels like a return to lockdown. He will know the public and political impact: can’t he get a grip?
The irony is that this wound, for such a master of communication, is largely self-inflicted. For what we are going through now is, short of a vaccine or a major weakening of the virus, inevitable. And how we perceive this experience is largely about how it is framed.
The right messaging requires two things: first, that we stop comparing this pandemic to the Spanish Flu. Let us not imagine that, as a century ago, second and third waves equal to or worse than the first are inevitably rolling toward us. But when the PM talks of “a second wave in Europe” that is the fear he evokes. Second, it is pointless to pretend that we can hold our collective breath until a vaccine appears. A vaccine may or may not appear. If it does, it could come this year, but it could be next year, or never. We don’t know.
When you have those two points in mind, you don’t step up to the dais, grim faced, as if to announce some national tragedy, every time there is a spike in cases. What you do is say, “This is life with the virus, it is not going away anytime soon, and with every day that it reveals more about itself, we learn to live with it better, hone and tailor our response – and thrive.”
The reality is that earlier this year, when Covid-19 was largely out of control, the total number of cases doubled every few days. Even at current, growing rates, the total would double every few months. There is no comparison. There is no tsunami just about to crash over our shores. Rather there is an uptick which we must be vigilant about and nimble enough to crush before taking further steps towards adapted normality.