The recent liberalisation is, indeed, to be welcomed, but the move from "rules" to "guidelines" has come too late, argues regular contributor Sean Walsh 

This government has shown itself to be adept in the dark practices of authoritarian alchemy: its "easing" of lockdown has up to now been suspiciously consistent with the introduction of new rules ? quite the conjuring trick. The Prime Minister has seemed keen to return our liberties by stipulating what we can and can't do with them.

In a way this inconsistency was an inevitable consequence of his egregious decision to impose a lockdown in the way that he did: as a blanket set of restrictions ameliorated by a list of specific permissions. That approach was always going to be in trouble when it had to run up against the inevitable contingencies of human life (think "Dominic Cummings"). Had he listened less to the scientists and more to the philosophers (and my rates are very reasonable) he might have been persuaded that it was better to enlist the public's co-operation, rather than demand its obedience.

A little late, he seems to have cottoned on to that.

The most significant part of the Prime Minister's announcement on Tuesday is being overlooked. Mr. Johnson has confirmed that from now on the overall context has changed. "Rules" are now being replaced with "guidelines". This is to be welcomed, and it would be uncharitable not to give him credit for this paradigm shift.

I don't propose to be charitable.

The Prime Minister has been guilty of moral failure. Not in how he reacted to the C-19 crisis (and it is a crisis) but in how he chose to view it: as essentially a problem to which the correct response must be shaped solely by "the science". He allowed himself to be persuaded that a human person is not a unique centre of intrinsic value but a data point in a computer model. The (thankfully now terminated) daily theatre of the absurd, the "daily briefing", emphasised this. Ministers started to sound like scientists, and the scientists seemed at times to be announcing policy. Science, that essentially disputatious and variegated set of very human practices, was presented as a homogenous and dispassionate instrument of truth. It was, in effect, weaponised.

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Take the "R" number, a metric which supposedly reflects at what rate a person who has C-19 will infect those with whom he comes into contact. Chris Whitty and the other eminences grise of the scientific establishment, have insisted that the "overall" R number must be kept below 1. But there is no "overall" R number, and it is a useless measure of infectivity when infection rates are very low. It is a mechanism of distortion, the "Spring Heeled Jack" of current epidemiology: a useful fiction designed to keep the children in line.

Which is why Mr. Johnson's move from "rules" to "guidelines" has come too late. The public, much of it anyway, has become infantilised by this lockdown. Society (like the economy, which is the expression of it) is not a machine you can turn on and off. It is an organism that dies when starved of oxygen.

Is that an exaggeration? I hope so, but I fear not. In his beautiful book The Soul of the Worldthe late and much missed philosopher Roger Scruton has a chapter in which he discusses the metaphysics of the human face. The face is not just another part of the human body. In its involuntary expressions -the frown, the smile etc- it discloses that we are not just bodies but embodied souls. It is the face which enables people to relate to each other as persons. What follows from this is that to cover the face is a form of withdrawal from normal interaction. To do this voluntarily is fine. To be compelled to do this is to be subject to a type of emotional vandalism. But to acquiesce when asked to do this is to be infantilised.

And that is the point we have reached.

Just in case I've been to kind to him I'll offer another criticism of Mr. Johnson's announcement. It is based on a false premise. The "rules", properly scrutinised, and in many cases, were not really rules at all. They were guidelines dressed up as rules. The whole "move from rules to guidelines" thing is another example of Johnsonian sleight of hand. It turns out that when a Minister looks into a camera lens and states that "X is compulsory" it does not follow, ipso facto, that X thus becomes compulsory. Who knew?

The liberalisation is, indeed, to be welcomed. But given the possibility that restrictions might be re-imposed if the "second wave" takes over from the "R number" as the new bogeyman, it's necessary to be sceptical, as it's possible that the lockdown was never necessary in the first place. This virus is a paradoxical thing. It is a trivial scrap of genetic material which seems nimbler than the scientists charged with hunting it down. The epidemiological trajectory in each European country it has gate-crashed seems to be pretty much the same, despite the very disparate measures taken to combat it.

To put it another way: it's played the politicians (and scientists) like a fiddle.

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