14:05, April 25 103 0 theguardian.com

2020-04-25 14:05:05
A growing clatter of voices treat the pandemic as if it's just health and safety gone mad



The quiet stoicism of some Conservative MPs. “We have to accept a little bit of risk,” says Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, the treasurer of the 1922 Committee. This group of predominantly middle-aged men is defiant in the face of the deaths that could follow an accelerated easing of lockdown, which it supports for economic reasons. “That inevitably will mean that there will be, at each time, more coronavirus cases. And we just have to accept that,” Clifton-Brown has said.

Is he well cast as the reaper’s apprentice? Perhaps, if you accept that Clifton-Brown’s tolerance of possibly large-scale virus-hastened exits may be perfectly reconcilable with his vote against assisted dying. Until last week, the main thing one remembered about this MP was an altercation at last year’s Tory conference, involving a missing pass, “remonstration” and the police being called.

Now that he argues on the national stage for increasing the virus’s opportunities, we can recognise the earlier embarrassment as a measure of his sang-froid, given that he is 67, male and, it appears, well-upholstered. Even if they have learned to be more careful than the prime minister, anti-lockdown MPs can’t be sure the virus will know its place and threaten only the workers they want to get back into shops, buses and pubs, along with old and vulnerable people nobody can see. If seclusion in the Cotswolds can preserve Clifton-Brown, Covid-19 could still kill his Tory constituents. Though what you don’t see, maybe you don’t miss. Clifton-Brown was last yearranked 650th – the worst MP in the country – in Change.org’s people-power index.

If he can’t convince the public that their lives have become unacceptably overpriced, other prominent allies have, mercifully for the virus, stepped up. Luke Johnson, somehow restored to business sagedom since the collapse, amid allegations of fraud and the loss of hundreds of jobs at his Patisserie Valerie chain, has scorned “an exaggerated fear of falling ill from the coronavirus and dying – we have idled the nation and all become hypochondriacs”. A likeminded commentator, Allison Pearson, points out that Britain came through diphtheria epidemics with loads of infant deaths: “Let’s be brave.” The Spectator’s Toby Young concluded, as Downing Street aides reportedly did at first, that the cost of lockdown, prolonging “the lives of a few hundred thousand mostly elderly people is an irresponsible use of taxpayers’ money”. He was entitled to say so, Young pointed out, since he himself had the virus: “My death would be acceptable collateral damage.”

Happily, there’s no way of assessing this offer, since Young is still with us and his wife thinks he was never infected. “He is a complete hypochondriac at the best of times,” she writes, “and this pandemic has sent his anxiety levels through the roof.”

Actual survivors, including Dominic Minghella and the Times’s Roger Boyes, have, however, in horrifying accounts of being hospitalised, with no visits permitted, allowed us to glimpse what being part of a rational economic sacrifice feels like. Minghella began farewell letters to his children. “This virus is releasing the demons of the night,” Boyes wrote afterwards. It’s possible that his fellow patient Boris Johnson, having learned that libertarianism does not confer immunity, is now less likely to deplore action on the virus, “beyond what is medically rational to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage”.

Descriptions of pitifully small funerals, the only type currently allowed, bring home the kind of bereavement, without even the consolation of relations, friends and proper mourning, that yet more families will experience if the 1922 Committee, supported by various Marcus Aurelius fans, is prematurely allowed its “little bit of risk”.

The Guardian reported on one such farewell last week, that of Eddie Goodall, who died on 5 April at the age of 83, having caught Covid-19 in hospital. Once, his family would have expected 300 or 400 people at his funeral. “To look at all the empty pews, it was devastating,” his daughter said.

How different it might be if people would adopt, as urged by Jonathan Sumption, the former supreme court judge, historian, BBC Reith lecturer and furious opponent of lockdown, a more resigned attitude to earthly sorrow. Attributing the existing lockdown to “hysteria” – the scholarly term for health and safety gone mad – the QC says that previous generations, subjected to worse plagues, would not have understood all the fuss. We have acquired “an irrational horror of death”, he says. “In the midst of life, our ancestors lived with death, an ever-present fact that they understood and accommodated.”

Evidently Sumption would have had a thing or two to say to, for instance, Orpheus, irrationally rushing off to Hades; or to that other antique snowflake Achilles, screaming over Patroclus; to inconsolable authors from Cicero to CS Lewis, who ignorantly refused to accept that they lived in times of exemplary submission, the QC says, to “the wheel of fortune”. Even Philippe Ariès, the historian of death, with his insistence on ancestral equanimity, seems to have conceded, unlike Sumption, that more recognisable expressions of loss had crept in by the time Shakespeare came up with “the funeral bak’d meats did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables”.

If there’s a kind of bizarre merit to Sumption’s open indifference to other people’s agony, when compared with Clifton-Brown’s euphemisms and Michael Gove’s reported wish to “run things quite hot”, you can’t help wondering if such colossal failures of fellow feeling might blind leading stoics to the very arguments likely to achieve their economic purpose. Fearful people also crave comfort and companionship. What we won’t contemplate because a former cake-shop magnate says it’s economically mandated, and because Horrible Histories proves the olden days were worse, we may accept out of longing for family and friends. When it’s time to make the case for emergence from lockdown, and the deaths and funerals that follow, they might want to try getting it done by a human.

Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist

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