Christopher Smith


It all seems a long time ago now, but I wonder what you got for Christmas. Something nice, I hope. I got Covid and ten days’ quite enjoyable isolation. I certainly don’t deserve any sympathy, as I only had pretty mild cold symptoms, but the second line was there on the test kit as plain as a pikestaff, and I was grounded. The cat and I were in competition as to who could sleep more, but I read lots of detective novels and tried to enjoy the peace and quiet which, in fact, I did enjoy. There was, after all, simply nothing I could do, as the law required me to stay indoors, and, frankly, there wasn’t a lot going on anyway. I couldn’t say I was weighed down by ‘fear of missing out’!

The law has required a lot of us over these last two years in ways that we couldn’t have imagined as we started 2020. ‘Out of this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety’, as Shakespeare had Hotspur say in Henry IV Part I. But, inevitably, perceptions of the danger have varied widely from person to person, and I was rather saddened to see a headline in the Guardian newspaper that ran, ‘UK Children pick “anxiety” as their word of 2021’. Our youngsters have born a heavy load in recent times, and there is a laziness about adults lauding (as I have myself) their ‘resilience’. When I was ten, I was anxious about going to hell and the prospect of a nuclear war, but at no point was my education interrupted, and at no point was I prevented by law from playing outside or seeing friends and family. Our ten-year-olds have had three academic years disrupted, and spent a fifth of their lives so far in this tunnel. We would normally believe that our job was to protect children from anxiety, but they have not been excused from the work of the ‘nudge unit’ in promoting fear as the route to that elusive flower, safety.

But I did sense a change in the zeitgeist over Christmas. I first mused in print about whether fear was getting the better of us in June 2020, when we were still forbidden to go to mass. ‘The testing of that state of affairs has been almost entirely absent’, I wrote, and remain frustrated at how little testing there has been in the media and in parliament of what has (or had) become the status quo. Central London is still remarkably quiet as I write, and the Evening Standard’s headline of 17th January has become typical: ‘End the working from home misery hurting London’. Yet the British media spent most of the last two years screaming for swifter and harder restrictions. Likewise, I now see the shadow health spokesman in the House of Commons declaring that there should never be another lockdown, when just before Christmas he was calling for harsher measures than the ‘Plan B’ then just implemented.

Rumty tum. We all need a ladder to climb down sometimes, and perhaps garden parties at Number 10 have provided one. The point at which I began to find it almost amusing was when I saw a picture of the wine fridge being delivered: a proper wine chiller, with nothing but racks for bottles, rather than shelves for sandwiches. Soon it will be possible to put the question ‘Was it worth it?’ – having all invested so heavily in this that it would be tragic if we had got it wrong. But we will be paying the costs of these restrictions in terms of health, wellbeing and economic security for many years to come, and have been rather reluctant to weigh in the balance against Quality-Adjusted Life Years. As I said in November 2020, ‘Opinion will vary among our readers as to the efficacy of these various restrictions, but I presume that we will eventually need to learn to live with our latest coronavirus, and I wonder whether we oughtn’t to be asking whether the “cure” at the moment isn’t worse than the disease’.

I don’t think we could face the question then, but maybe we will be able to soon. And, for the future, we will have to relearn how to deal with uncertainty, and that human beings cannot control everything. When people blame clergy for the weather (and they do), the underlying implication is that nothing but the weather remains under the authority of God. Human beings, it is presumed, can control everything else. Well, now we have been reminded powerfully that we can’t. And we have surely got to stop listening to those who maintain, in the face of real-world data, that unfeasible, computer-generated numbers (six thousand deaths per day in mid-January?!) make good drivers of public policy.

What next, as ‘Plan B’ winds down, and we see light at the end of this tunnel? I think we need to move on from the ‘something must be done’ mentality. Why in heaven’s name is the government of Hong Kong culling hamsters? I also wonder, after having spent eye-watering sums of money on (to name but one thing) the strikingly unsuccessful ‘Test and Trace’ programme, why we haven’t yet got a grip on infection control within hospitals? But I concede that this is hardly my area of expertise. Perhaps what we can continue to offer is a Christian perspective on uncertainty, and on the ultimate sovereignty of God, and on the defeat of death through the saving action of Jesus Christ.