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Politicians must be open about future to help win fight against Covid-19 – Professor Peter Watson

30th April 2020

The Covid-19 coronavirus is likely to be a threat for some time, so we need to have a proper debate about how we can live with this ‘new normal’, writes Professor Peter Watson.

It will be a relief for many to hear the First Minister begin to discuss how lockdown and a return to work might be managed in Scotland. Westminster had to await the return to work of the Prime Minister to see how the process might unfold in England. These discussions seem to revolve around a choreography of moving between operating safely in the workplace or engaging in the retail experience whilst also maintaining social distancing. It is a deadly course to weave.

In the days and weeks to come, the politicians in our four nations will reveal their plans to release us from house arrest. Should these plans differ between themselves then conflict and issues of inequality will arise. Why is somebody in one part of the country to be treated differently and to be less or more free than another?

It discriminates on age and apparently also affects some ethnic minorities to a greater extent. Some who encounter the virus are asymptomatic and effectively untouched. Many children appear to be significantly less affected, but we do not know why.

Politicians are grappling with an exit strategy – partly to maintain social cohesion and partly to restart economic activity as it becomes increasingly clear that this virus is also attacking our economic well-being.

Whatever the politicians come up with is supposedly a “new normal”, but the problem is that it will not be normal. Functional workplaces will display notices marking out social distancing zones, workers will be at work but cannot congregate, and any discourse with clients, customers, and other businesses will remain largely virtual.

Politicians will make mistakes

We will continue being at war. We will live our lives, public and private, in a way which seeks to frustrate and defeat the virus. We will have to live, work and exist, all while understanding that this virus is not going away.

It is not seasonal, not a flash in the pan, and will continue with spikes of infection, illness, and worse.

The weapons which we have are social distancing, understanding who is and is not infected, and identifying who has recovered and if they have immunity. In short: test, trace, and isolate.

Even for those who are immune, we do not know if this lasts a lifetime or a month, because we do not have the necessary data. This underlines the vital importance of testing, and through testing the acquisition of data which will give us tools to allow us to understand who we need to distance from and where. Testing makes our invisible enemy visible.

Our politicians will, of course, make mistakes. That is to be expected and accepted. We should have had greater testing, what we have now is not enough, and how we use the data recovered from testing needs to be better thought through.

The measures that follow are likely to impact significantly on human rights and freedoms and we will need safeguards and a functioning judicial system to protect those rights.

Our liberal democracy is now being challenged. This virus is more than a threat to health. It is a threat to who we are and what we could become if we fail to understand what we are doing, why we are doing it, and how best we protect what is important to us.

Proper debate

In the last analysis, it is a threat to what defines us as individuals and as a nation.

From our politicians we therefore require the greatest candour. We need to understand the almost impossible task we are setting our elected representatives.

It must be understood that this virus is not going away and will not die out until a vaccine is produced, is shown to be effective, and then manufactured and distributed in enough quantities for the whole planet to be protected.

The elephant in the room is that we must be told it will be like this for this year, next year, and possibly the year after – and that it will continue to fundamentally reshape our lives while it is with us.

We need to start thinking what the new normal is to look like and how we can make this bearable and acceptable. We need to understand the consequences of this virus, its brutal age discrimination, rising economic hardship, the loss of some personal freedoms and protections, greater control of individuals by the state, greater inequality between rich and poor, and, sadly, greater inequality between ethnic groups.

Openness and candour will equip us to engage in a proper debate. We are locked in a deadly chess game with this virus. We must know our future so that we can deny it its checkmate.

Professor Peter Watson is legal adviser to the Covid-19 panel of scientific and medical experts convened by the Scottish Police Federation.

This article originally appeared in The Scotsman.

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