Good news for a nation that loves bickering: coronavirus is the new Brexit | Joel Golby | Opinion

The start of Britain’s Coronavirus Week #2, now, with a good handful of us in self-isolation and a good amount of us very actively not: supermarkets plundered, businesses still not quite knowing whether to let people work from home, the diagnosed cases significant but currently manageable, the country on a precipice, and before all of this hits us as hard as it has other European countries, the one question burns: will the government’s gamble to not engage in mass testing or draconian lockdowns make things worse or better? And in that question, one harsh and jewel-like truth: coronavirus is Brexit now.

You remember Brexit, don’t you? A while ago now. Started in 2016 as a joke and then it backfired so hard we had to have Theresa May as prime minister. Brexit is done now – in that we have exited Europe and ruined three consecutive Christmases by arguing about it. But just as we were going to get down to the nitty-gritty of actually going into free-trade freefall, coronavirus happened. And – seamlessly – the point-scoring back-and-forth of domestic Brexit arguments has moved on to that.

It started with the government’s official response last week, where Boris Johnson announced the first round of a strategy designed to limit coronavirus impact, which was basically “listen quite a lot of people are going to die, figure it out among yourselves”.

Whatever you think of the current government – and I can’t say I’m a fan – the way the current state of discourse is set up means basically any announcement of action on Johnson’s part would be under feverish scrutiny so, in a way, it’s better for them to announce pretty much nothing than to even really try. Johnson could have demanded an enforced lockdown and on-the-spot fines for breaking quarantine; turned hotels and empty buildings into NHS hospitals; announced rent and mortgage suspension across the board and hazmat teams patrolling the street with antibac sprays, and somebody would still kick off about something. One of those “intense cleanliness is actually bad for you”, natural-deodorant-and-a-weekly-shower lot would do an excoriating Twitter thread, and he’d be finished. Better to half-try and fail than try hard and fail, I always say, and it’s good to see government strategy follow suit.

But then this does immediately create two defined opposing groups: on one side, mindless tub thumpers of government agenda who would back anything Johnson says because he broadly represents them (in the Brexit analogy, these are the most likely to stand over a mass grave and say, “Coronavirus won, get over it”); on the other, people who would like to hear a bit more from the scientists, please. But because “science” is not a precise set of guidelines but rather a sort of intelligent squabble, there are currently various opposing views on both the severity of Covid-19 and the best way of dealing with it, and it means we now have terms such as “herd immunity” and “80% infection rate” and “second wave” being thrown around by people who, and I’m speaking from personal experience, have read about three-and-a-half articles about it. In that sheer void of actual knowledge, the best arguments form.

I suppose a lot of it boils down to the strange British disdain we have for experts. We really don’t like people who know things. Perhaps it’s because they challenge the inherent idea that being British is this weird universal get-out-of-jail-free card that can be played in any situation – being in the single market, winning a war, cheerfully going on holiday during a pandemic – and, in the midst of a economic-political-biomedical crisis where everyone is a half-expert and nobody is a full one, having a deep-set confidence that you can defeat a virus just by being more British than it is does have an oddly significant currency.

While there are dogs playing Jenga, there is still hope

There was a fun and interesting look at what life would be like if football stopped existing this weekend, and that is: great swathes of the population would have literally no idea how to spend a Saturday afternoon, and a number of men would now have absolutely nothing left to say, to anyone, because they can no longer speculate how much Sadio Mané might be worth in an open market. This is bad. It seems good, but it’s bad.

I understand why the football authorities chose to postpone league games (certain non-league games still went ahead, which I mention only because there is a certain type of person, Lads Who Know About Non-League, who won’t give up until they find my address and come to my house and tell me, in their Peaky Blinders caps and with their pints of Camden Hells, that non-league games still went ahead, actually), and agree that it was the right thing to do. But I do think it is bad that it happened, because it exposed how vulnerably reliant we all are on sport to stay sane. People are so desperate for entertainment that they are bemoaning F1 being cancelled, for goodness’ sake. We thought the apocalyptic horsemen would be Pestilence, War, Famine and Death, but it’s actually just Being so Starved for Entertainment That You’d Degrade Yourself By Rooting for Lewis Hamilton to Tactically Overtake His Own Teammate.

sadio mane

‘When the dust settles, nobody will really notice if Liverpool (Sadio Mané pictured) have won or lost the title. We’ll all be too hooked on high-level Scalextric to care.’ Photograph: DeFodi Images/Getty Images

What concerns me is the void left where sport was before. You don’t consider how many of the normal people around you are constantly preoccupied by sport. Football, for example, is a week-long cycle – anticipation for a match, the match itself, the crushing and humiliating loss (me: Arsenal fan), the discussion about how not to lose next time, the forward-looking anticipation of summer, the constant idea that one defensive-minded midfield signing from Serie A will fix everything; all of these wheels, constantly whirring, occupying hours of time – and without it: nothing.

Videos of a more-locked-down-than-us Italy has people joyously singing together off their balconies for solidarity and entertainment, which is fine for Italians, but very simply will not work here. Britain needs two things running in the background as a constant – an ongoing polemical discussion we can get so mad about that we raise our voice too much and ruin a dinner party, and a live sporting event with very little impact on the rest of the league. My theory is this: in the next two weeks, we will, through some great unseen groupthink, decide on a couple of non-sports that don’t require audiences to become obsessed with and broadcast on Sky – marble runs are an early contender, or paper planes thrown out of skyscrapers, or maybe dogs playing Jenga – and they will become our new religions. When all this dust settles, nobody will really notice if Liverpool have won or lost the title. We’ll all be too hooked on high-level Scalextric to care.

Joel Golby is the author of Brilliant, Brilliant, Brilliant Brilliant Brilliant

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