John Humphrys - A Year from Now : What Shape Will We Be In?

December 29, 2020, 9:53 AM GMT+0

Few of us can remember a Christmas and New Year grimmer for the whole country than the period we’re facing now. Maybe those with memories going back to the early 1940s might be able to claim that this is nothing in comparison with what they experienced then. After all, we’re not in imminent danger of losing a war and having our country turned into a colony of a Nazi empire. But the rest of us have never seen anything like this prolonged and almost total halt to our usual way of living. Human beings, however, tend to look ahead. Indeed our ability to do so across long stretches of future time may be one of the things that distinguish us from all other living beings. So an obvious question to ask is: what will things be like this time next year – will they be better or might they be even worse?

There’s always a curious illusion attending this time of year. It’s that once we get through it, somehow the world will then be magically different. Implied in the phrase ‘once we get Christmas out of the way…’ is the notion that nothing will be the same afterwards. And it’s almost explicit in the very concept of a new year: it’ll be ‘new’ and therefore by definition different. Even the Prime Minister is susceptible to the charm of this illusion. He’s reported to have told colleagues last week: ‘I can’t wait for 2020 to end!’ But that was before the Brexit deal was finally struck and it’s fair to assume that he will have rather enjoyed the press coverage he’s been getting since it was announced.

But as he well knows there is a world of difference between striking a deal and implementing it. And as we all know the mother and father of our current woes remains with us. It’s called Covid.

It may be that you have given up listening to the scientists talking about the virus, either because you’re bored or because you’ve become a touch sceptical about what they’re saying. But to save you the bother I can report that the two things they seem most sure about with regard to the new mutation is that it’s a much more substantial mutation than most of them expected and that its capacity to spread through the population is much greater.

As for the rest – whether it’s more lethal, or whether it will render the emerging vaccines useless – all they can say now is that there is no evidence to worry on these grounds. But as any sharp-minded reader of science will tell you, there’s all the difference in the world between there being no evidence for worry and there being evidence not to worry. Listen carefully to the scientists and they’re saying the first not the second. In other words, beware of hearing reassurance that isn’t actually there.

The scientists say they need more time. Fair enough. But what this implies for our speculation is that we could well find ourselves over the next year (and even beyond) confronting a virus that is constantly mutating, constantly spreading faster and faster and leaving the scientists breathless trying to catch up with it.

I’m not predicting this – how would I know? I’m just pointing out how relatively limited the evidence regarding the future trajectory of the pandemic that we have is. I feel we may well be (for all I know) in December 1914. Remember how they said the First World War would be ‘all over by Christmas’ (I seem to recall Mr Johnson saying something similar about Covid)? Well, four years later it finally was. Maybe four years hence we’ll be looking back at this Christmas and marvelling at how little idea we had of what was in store for us. Just saying.

Then again, the vaccine may triumph over all – including whatever new mutations the wicked virus may throw at us. Just hoping.

Either way, the bills are still coming in for the Chancellor’s largesse last spring and summer nd they will keep coming in for a very long time. The effect on the economy hardly needs pointing out. The government might even start to take fright about how long it can just keep paying us all to stay at home on furlough. 2020 might start to seem retrospectively like that time when we’d never had it so good.

And then there’s the politics of all this. How could such a scenario do anything other than turn politics into an even more acrimonious business than it is already? Blame has always been one of the most combustible fuels of political conflict and in the picture I paint of a possible 2021 there is a vast store of blame waiting to be ignited. And if you are tempted to find solace in the fact that one of the chief igniters of that fuel, Donald Trump, is leaving the scene, don’t kid yourself.

He shows every sign of doubling down on his politics of blaming everyone but himself once he’s out of office and doing so with an incendiary incivility that raises the temperature for everyone. And now he has an army charged with an ineradicable sense of grievance that they and their great leader are the victims of a massive fraud. Don’t expect 2021 to be kinder.

Is that enough to shake any complacency we may have that, as Tony Blair used to say ‘things can only get better’?

But that, of course, is just one way of speculating about the coming year. How might things indeed ‘get better’? Well, let’s start with the politics. One way they might well change in 2021 is that Boris Johnson is quite likely to cease being prime minister. You might think that is a very partisan, anti-Tory remark to make, and it’s certainly the case that pretty much anyone who is not a Conservative would be delighted to see the man booted out of Downing Street. Or at least they would have been before the deal was struck. It’s possible that has changed everything, but it’s equally possible that making the deal work will expose his weaknesses.

The New Statesman’s Stephen Bush joked recently that back in the summer of 2019 when Mr Johnson was running for the leadership, the Conservative Party was divided between those who thought he was an election-winner and those who thought he couldn’t run a government to save his life. Now, wrote Mr Bush, the party was united behind both propositions. So it remains possible, once the optimistic glow of a deal has dimmed, that the party will seize its moment sometime during the coming year to get rid of the man who won them the election because he’s proved he can’t run a government.

Then, trying to look on the bright side, there’s Covid itself. The vaccine has arrived. And one of its authors has said that it would take only six weeks to modify it to tackle the new mutation. Maybe any other mutations could also be speedily dealt with. And quite separately there’s the chance that the simple passing of time will allow us to accustom ourselves better to its continuing existence among us – that we’ll come to live with it better. We might learn how to co-exist with it without having constantly to be shutting down our lives in an endless sequence of lockdowns.

Maybe we’ll even come to realise that we have been almost hysterical in implicitly regarding a Covid death differently from the way we regard any other sort of death. The NHS might stop being chiefly a National Covid Service and return to its original purpose as a National Health Service in which there are many conditions that need treating and in which death is a fact of life, whether it’s death by Covid or by any other fatal illness.

As for the economy it remains possible that the economy might well go great guns in 2021. For one thing, the average family has been saving around £7,000 during 2020 simply as a result of being told to stay at home, not go to the pub or a restaurant, not go abroad on holiday and all the rest. There is what the economists call ‘pent-up demand’ together with the readies available to go on a splurge when the time comes. So maybe 2021 will see an economic boom, easing the government’s own financial concerns as growth both relieves pressure on its spending and raises more for it in tax revenue. The Chancellor would then be able to exploit very low interest rates and the readiness of the markets to lend the government money not to finance our staying at home twiddling our thumbs, but to pay for all the investment needed to ‘level up’ Britain.

What’s more we might see in 2021 real evidence of Britain’s future as a pioneering, high-tech economy – and thanks, ironically, to Covid. The pandemic has shown how Britain really is leading the way in the life sciences. It’s estimated that around 45% of all the work done in the world on the genetic sequencing of the virus is done in the UK. What’s more, Britain was the first country to give regulatory approval to the vaccine. Since the world is moving into an era in which viruses are likely to become a bigger not a lesser problem, Britain could find itself for once with an industry in the vanguard.

And if you want a final bit of cheering up, there’s climate change. Donald Trump may spend next year fuming in Florida, but the White House will be occupied by a man not only committed to tackling climate change but who has just appointed to his incoming government two women universally admired for their grasp of the issues and determination to do something about what many see as the biggest problem facing mankind. And Britain will be at the centre of the action, chairing the next big international conference on climate change in Glasgow next November.

So there you have it: reasons to believe we could be in an even worse pickle this time next year and reasons to believe quite the opposite. I have not the slightest idea which will turn out to be true. Nor have you. But which seems to you the more plausible, or which mix of the two the most likely?

Let us know. And, as far as possible, have a merry Christmas and a happy new year!

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