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Beware rashness

15 May 2020

FOR many diseases, recuperation can be as wearisome as the illness itself. No longer distracted by the severity of the symptoms, the patient has to balance the desire to become active again with the danger of a relapse. Boredom can set in quickly, and leads to rash decisions. Before using this as an analogy for the present state of the nation, it is important to note that Covid-19 is a more brutal disease than many. A second phase, nastier than the first, can drag seemingly recovering patients back into jeopardy with a new set of life-threatening symptoms. The seriousness of the disease is borne out by figures for total deaths in the UK released by the Office for National Statistics. These allow observers to compare this year’s overall mortality statistics with the average of the past five years. Given problems over testing and diagnosis, this offers a more accurate figure for the effect of Covid-19, since it includes deaths that were caused indirectly by the hold that the virus has on the health-care system. The figure of excess deaths released on Tuesday was 50,979, compared with the official coronavirus tally of 32,692 on the same day. Given the lag in recording, The Times estimated the true figure at nearer 61,000.

These sorts of totals, among the worst, if not the worst in Europe, have not come about because the risk from the coronavirus has been over-estimated. Apportioning blame is a luxury in the present time, but at the very least lessons must be learnt when it comes to easing restrictions while avoiding a second spike in infections. Too many decisions emanating from Westminster smack of expediency, such as the guidance to the public to fashion face masks that would be clearly inadequate, or the advice to observe social distancing outside the home “wherever possible”. The Government talks of responding to the different levels of risk in different sectors of the population, but no measures have been suggested to protect a group now recognised to be one of the most vulnerable: working-class BAME men and women. Quite the opposite. The Government’s credibility over its handling of the virus is fading. The danger is that, if respect for official pronouncements is lost, members of the public will react in entirely the wrong way and ignore all restrictions.

This is the context in which the church authorities are trying to model the reopening of church buildings during a period when the coronavirus will still be abroad. There are many churches, particularly of the smaller, rural kind, that could adapt to the conditions. But churchgoers who fall into the vulnerable category will not dare attend, and it is hard to imagine young children being welcomed — or attracted. Anyone who reflects on the difficulties must conclude that, in the first phase at least, what emerges might have less right to call itself “the Church” than what is at present being managed.

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