DAN HODGES: If our New Normal is the state telling me who I can and can’t see, count me out
Who is your 11th friend? Last week it emerged Ministers are giving serious consideration to the creation of a ‘bubble’ of ten family members and acquaintances who we will be allowed to associate with as part of the slow easing of lockdown.
So think about it for a moment. Not of the ten lucky souls who will make the cut. But the 11th. The cousin. The work colleague. That slightly awkward and detached member of your social circle. Think about the conversation where you tell them: ‘Sorry, I’d love to see you. But I have to stay in my bubble, think of the NHS and save lives.’
This, apparently, is The New Normal. The landscape that awaits as we finally emerge, blinking, from the Covid darkness into the light.
‘We won’t just have this binary easing up of measures,’ Dominic Raab told the nation in one of his final acts as stand-in Prime Minister. ‘We’ll end up moving to a new normal. And we will need to make sure that we can proceed in a sure-footed way.’
I’ve spent some time trying to understand what The New Normal will actually look like. Some of it is simply random and irrational. ‘We’re looking at social distancing on public transport that will mean operating services at just 15 per cent of normal capacity,’ one Minister told me.
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Other proposals sound good on paper, but are impractical. Such as the idea of a 2m exclusion zone in workplaces.
And then there are the plans that have clearly been drawn up by someone who has fallen over and hit their head. Like the idea of a two-pint limit in pubs, with landlords ‘inviting’ customers to depart after their quota has been reached.
There obviously has to be some caution over the more crackpot propositions. As one Minister explained: ‘What you have to remember is that SAGE [the key scientific advisory group advising the Cabinet over the Covid-19 response] has over 100 people assigned to it. So it needs only one person to float a barking idea, and it gets traction.’
But it’s clear that in their increasingly desperate search for a route out of the lockdown labyrinth, Ministers are giving serious consideration to some radical – and dangerous – schemes. One is the idea of some sort of continuing restriction on private social gatherings, along the lines of the ‘ten friends’ proposal.
As one senior Conservative backbencher said: ‘Remember those times when you used to meet someone, and go out for a few dates. Then you’d reach the point where you’d say to yourself, “right, do I want to take this on to the next level?” What we’re seriously looking at is the State stepping in and saying, “sorry, but we’re now going to demand you make up your mind. Are you into her or not?” ’
Even more contentious is the idea of contact-tracing technology to prevent a second Covid-19 surge. This is where automated location tracking can identify who infected patients have been meeting with, and deliver texts telling them to get tested or self-isolate.
In principle the system is anonymised. But in practice it could be staggeringly intrusive. Imagine the conversations with your spouse when you receive a message saying you may have brought a deadly virus home. The speculation over who the plague-carrier may be. Or how it was you just happened to get yourself in such close proximity to them to become infected.
And there is a final system Ministers are contemplating to free us from our coronavirus prisons. Or some of us.
The idea of using an antibody test to divide the nation into The Clean – those who have had the virus and are no longer at risk of infection – and The Unclean – us modern-day lepers who are yet to exhibit symptoms but could potentially have the lethal virus lurking deep within our systems. It’s not yet clear how this divide will be administered. There has been talk within Whitehall of doctor’s certificates. Or even wristbands. Fortunately, badges are viewed as a step too far.
But this is where we are this morning. As so often over the past couple of months, what once seemed reserved for the pages of science-fiction has become reality.
Dominic Raab told the nation in one of his final acts as stand-in Prime Minister: ‘We won’t just have this binary easing up of measures. We’ll end up moving to a new normal. And we will need to make sure that we can proceed in a sure-footed way’
The State dictating who we can and cannot meet in the privacy of our own home. Effectively eroding the concept of privacy completely with invasive tracking technology. And creating a new social hierarchy constructed by scientists in a lab. If we cannot identify some disturbing historic parallels within The New Normal, then we should.
Of course, none of this is being done with malign intent. Boris Johnson has not emerged from his near-death experience with a sudden desire to enslave Britain.
His sole motivation – and that of his Ministers and advisers – is to safeguard the nation. But again, in our desire to protect ourselves and everything we hold dear, we are in danger of destroying everything we hold dear.
At the moment the advocates of The New Normal point to the opinion polls. They cite evidence that 70 per cent of people support a continuation of stringent measures until the virus is defeated. But that leaves nearly one in three people with doubts. And if those doubts turn into active disobedience towards the coronavirus struggle, the entire strategy will collapse.
Whatever the second phase of the fight against Covid-19 is to be, it cannot simply be imposed.
I’m told Boris will unveil only a limited lifting of the current lockdown restrictions. But there is only so much longer that these benign edits can be handed down.
Boris has said he intends to reach out to Sir Keir Starmer to help construct a political consensus for the way ahead
There is going to have to be a serious national discussion, along the lines advocated by Nicola Sturgeon, about what our New Normal actually looks like.
Boris has said he intends to reach out to Sir Keir Starmer to help construct a political consensus for the way ahead. But Starmer has no public mandate. Nor, for that matter, does Boris. The manifesto that secured his Election triumph was a buccaneering vision of post-Brexit liberty. Not a eulogy to Big Brother.
Because this is the real problem with our prospective New Normal. Not the newness, but the normality. Each and every one of us has been forced to embrace things they would have found unthinkable less than two months ago. But most of us have done so willingly, in the knowledge it was being done in the national interest, and in extremis.
What we are being asked to accept now is not the extreme. Or even the unusual. But a new status quo. A package of measures that we are told could be with us for months, or years, or even indefinitely.
So let us begin that national conversation about The New Normal. And let me start it with my own modest contribution.
My normal will not involve State-approved lists of people I can meet. Or State monitoring of when and where I meet them. Or a quiet acceptance of the division of my country into the pure and the plague-carrier.
The struggle against Covid-19 has – rightly – been described as a war. But this morning we need to stop, and we need to think. Or one day soon we will awake to find the new normal is a world in which we have lost and the virus has triumphed.
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