In a week when B&Q began allowing customers back into 14 of its do-it-yourself stores but Ministers hinted that pubs might not be open before Christmas, it has been a case of one door opening as 50,000 others slammed shut.
The blow to the nation’s publicans is, if you will forgive me, a particularly bitter one, coming as it does so soon after the Chancellor threw them a lifeline in the budget, freezing not only alcohol duty but also business rates on many village locals. He had an eye to the impact of the coronavirus when he did that, but no-one expected the severity of the measures that would follow – even though it was only six weeks ago.
This, of course, raises the question of why not? As the country grows more restless, many have wondered whether the Government should have taken control of the reaction to Covid-19 earlier. And Michael Gove’s admission that the Prime Minister missed five meetings of the Cobra emergency committee in the build-up to the crisis, and that Britain sent protective equipment to China in February, certainly makes it hard to argue the case for anyone’s farsightedness.
But while going into lockdown sooner would have brought the timeline forward, it was not necessarily a missed opportunity. The justification for the abrupt removal of so many freedoms would not yet have been understood; the anger that is only manifesting itself now would have been felt much earlier.
Where the Government’s failure has been beyond question, though, is in trying to manipulate what should have been a flow of impartial and objective information, and in so doing losing control of it completely.
Neither publicans nor anyone else should be expected to have to redraw their business plans on the basis of the length of a piece of string. There should by now be a road map with a way forward clearly marked.
It is the ministerial obsession with spin – one that began with Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell and has preoccupied every successive administration more than any policy ever has – that is at play here. Messages which ought not to be coloured are stage managed to present the messenger in the best light possible, but the sleight of hand is as obvious as if Tommy Cooper were doing it. The message becomes debased; its authority diminished.
The result is that the Government has squandered its considerable reserve of goodwill while the rest of us are treated like children – and at the very time when we are being more grown-up than we’ve been for generations.
It hasn’t always been thus. During the Falklands War the daily dispatches from the South Atlantic were relayed on TV not by a politician at all but by a civil servant named Ian McDonald, who imparted good news and bad from behind rectangular, horn-rimmed spectacles, in the same, dreary monotone. It was dull but it patronised no-one.
In the absence of such objectivity today, it is not surprising that companies are attempting to retake control of their destinies. Fast-food outlets are reopening branches and a few general retailers are talking of at least a partial return early next month. This may be wise or it may not, but it is more decisive than most of the hot air blowing out of Westminster.
The irony is that there is no need for it – not in the face of Tuesday’s opening by the inspirational, 99-year-old Captain Tom Moore, of the 500-bed Nightingale Hospital in Harrogate.
The logistical accomplishment of building it in two weeks flat is an achievement almost unparalleled in peacetime. Set against this, and six more across the country, the Government’s shortcomings seem less culpable – especially in the circumstances in which decisions had to be taken. And had they been addressed with honesty and candour, most critics would have taken them in good faith. Yet the culture of spin dictates that mistakes must be hidden at any cost and apologies given only as a final recourse.
Is it any wonder that so many of us are looking for our own set of keys – if only to pick the lock of the nearest pub?