So far, not a single case of coronavirus has been announced in Cheltenham. Were there to be an announcement, the clamour from students for the closure of the schools would be deafening.
If a town of one hundred thousand people has remained free of the virus that fills the news headlines, a government intent upon a programme of containment would presumably wish to take measures to ensure that remained the case. If a race meeting that attracts sixty thousand spectators a day over four days was going to bring tens of thousands of visitors from infected areas into the town, the government might say, “hold on, is this a wise thing to do?” If the government hasn’t done so, it would suggest that the government is not overly concerned with the potential spread of the virus, despite its protestations that it is implementing a plan.
The government is sending out contradictory signals: on one hand, politicians are responding to public clamour by appearing on television to declare all the resources available will be necessary; on the other hand, despite the wide geographical dispersal of known coronavirus cases, the government is allowing major gatherings of people to continue as normal. Premier League matches took place in London and Manchester today, and an international rugby match took place in Edinburgh. Which signals are people to believe, those that say we must be on our guard or those that say everything can continue as normal?
Perhaps there are three possible explanations for the government’s ambiguity.
One possible explanation is that they do not regard coronavirus as a serious threat. The mortality rate, thus far, has been low and while the political posturing may continue, there will be no moves to disrupt the normal functioning of the economy and society.
A second, far less likely, explanation is that there have been urgings for the government to assume a laissez-faire approach, to allow the process to take its natural course. Medical interventions have extended life spans far beyond the capacity of the economy to cope, perhaps there are now voices calling for non-interventions to allow the virus to take pressure off of pension funds and social care budgets. (Lest it be thought inconceivable that an English government would ever stand back and allow people to die, read the writings of Charles Trevelyan at the time of the Irish potato famine).
A third possible explanation, which seems the most likely, is that the government really hasn’t a clue what it is doing. It has had imaginary meetings with supermarkets, has been unable to discourage absurd bouts of panic buying, and is led by a Prime Minister who will say anything that people want to hear.
Who knows what will happen?