When we left this Britain on Thursday last week, life was almost as usual. Shops and restaurants were open. The Battle Observer was reporting that environmentalists, angry that East Sussex County Council’s pension funds are invested in fossil fuels, were organising a one-day protest demanding a ‘sex strike’. No one, they insisted, must have sexual intercourse with any of the county’s 50 elected councillors ‘until they agree to stop funding climate change’. As a campaign, this latter-day reworking of Lysistrata had the merit that most people would probably agree to its conditions, whatever their views on climate change. We returned home on Monday, however, to read that the protest had collapsed. Faced with the onrush of Covid-19, even the zealous green sex-strikers were daunted, and did not turn up outside Lewes town hall. Those wishing to copulate with our county councillors were left in peace.
It was in those four days that the coronavirus took hold in Britain. We were in the charming, understated Mill Reef Club on Antigua, where I was giving a speech. In that lovely island’s bright sun, fresh breezes and blue sea, the world-fever seemed remote. It was coming, however. We soon heard that the island’s first case had been notified — an Englishwoman bringing it in on a flight from London. On Sunday, we attended an Anglican service. Conducted according to the Book of Common Prayer of the West Indies, it was similar to what might be found in an old-fashioned English parish church, except twice as long, due to more of everything — hymns, prayers, notices, blessings for children, and a half-hour sermon. In the last, interrupted by cries of ‘Amen’, the rector, a distinguished-looking grey-haired woman, expounded not only the lessons of the day, but also the song ‘I beg your pardon,/ I never promised you a rose garden’. Her theme was that we must put up with suffering, and trust in God: if He lets us get Covid-19, we have no right to complain. She did, however, announce that the sign of peace before communion would not be exchanged. As we set off for the airport on Sunday night, the club’s mainly American members, the men dressed in their preppy blazers, were calmly meeting in the ward-room to discuss an early shutdown.
In the museum of the handsome English Harbour, from which the young Nelson operated in the 1780s, disease is mentioned. In a two-year period in the middle of the 18th century, it records, fever killed 50,000 people in the naval base, which I imagine must have been more than half the population. Not even Piers Morgan claims that we shall get anything near that proportion. Until quite recently, human population was — as wild bird or animal populations still are — subject to crashes. It is a great benefit for civilisation that this is no longer so; but the danger is that, without them, we have lost the astonishing resilience we once needed to survive.
While in Antigua, I bought a straw hat. After buying it, I looked more closely at its label. It said ‘Made in China. Physician Approved’, which made my corona feel suddenly viral. China, by the way, is busy buying its way into the island, while America sleeps.
Listening to Rishi Sunak announcing his ‘whatever it takes’ economic plans on Tuesday evening, one could take some confidence from the fact that he is free to do so. This is not exactly a Brexit point — we never joined the euro, after all — but it certainly is a point about national financial independence. All (all!) the Chancellor had to do was agree the colossal sums with the new governor of the Bank of England, Andrew Bailey. Those who run Italy today have no such freedom. Christine Lagarde made this so embarrassingly clear last week that she had to rephrase. If her ECB does help, it will do so on essentially German terms, not on the terms that Italy needs.
A Spanish friend tells me he has the coronavirus, but knows this only because he got himself tested privately. A lot of people are doing this in Spain, but private test results are not included in the official figures, which therefore substantially understate the spread of the disease. On the other hand, the illness is, in his case, extremely mild, so he is bored. This is a problem for many Covid-19 sufferers. One such is Karl von Habsburg. I gather he was at such a loose end in his confinement that, for the first time in his life, he picked up a vacuum cleaner and used it for five hours. I like this egalitarian vision of the rightful Emperor of Austria in quarantine.
Boris Johnson gave a sort of permission for Mr Sunak’s policy when he said that he and the Chancellor were acting ‘like any wartime government’. Economically, that is surely right. Socially, however, the Blitz spirit won’t work this time. In 1940, men were happy to gather in their clubs and pubs, as the bombs fell, to drink, gossip and enjoy one another’s company. Church congregations rose substantially. The war brought people together. The fight against the coronavirus unavoidably drives us apart. This week, Boris effectively closed most drinking and eating places and the Archbishops of Canterbury and York suspended all services. Boarding schools will almost certainly close (Eton announced it was doing so on Wednesday); it would not be surprising if state schools followed. Many families will spend more time together, but most friends and colleagues much less. The virtual world will therefore become the primary one for most interactions. To avoid the virus, one must go viral. The Wine Society sends out a cheerful email: ‘There is much media comment on the difficulty of maintaining effective isolation and we want to do our bit to help. Currently our team is developing a comprehensive programme of wine-related activity to keep you entertained and engaged.’ I await it eagerly.