Martyn McLaughlin: We must look to ourselves to help overcome coronavirus crisis

We are adrift in a tempest at the moment, and it is hard to keep sight of the horizon knowing the storm is only going to get worse.

A man wearing a mask as a precautionary measure against covid-19 walks a dog on Clapham Common in south London on March 24

In these unprecedented times, we are allowed to be anxious, scared, and uncertain, wondering when - and where - we might find safe passage.

Others are trying to chart a course for us through the coronavirus pandemic, but make no mistake, just as your family is feeling overwhelmed by the crisis, so are governments around the world. All of us now bear one another’s burdens.

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The question of whether the direction in which we are travelling will lead to calmer waters is difficult to answer. It will take a year, perhaps longer, to know which strategy proved the wisest, and who has borne the brunt.

It took only a few minutes for me to be struck yesterday by the psychological impact of the strict new measures announced by Boris Johnson.

My daughters had barely finished their breakfast when, conspiratorially, they hatched a plot to escape on their scooter and balance bike. They employed a powerful arsenal - emotional blackmail, heartfelt pleas, and screaming (yes, lots of screaming) - but it all fell on deaf ears. It had to.

Only at lunchtime, when I had broken the back of this column, did we make our way outside to a deserted village green, and for a blissful half hour or so, lost ourselves in a game in which we were the only people in the world. The game’s black humour, it ought to go without saying, was not for their benefit.

As the afternoon wore on, I noticed from my study window that the green grew busier, and a steady trickle of traffic hummed by. Were these people seeking their own fleeting respite, I wondered, or were they going about their day just as they had last week, or last month, or before all this began? It was impossible to know, and for the being at least, it will remain that way

The blunt reality is that the strict new course set for the nation by Boris Johnson on Monday evening is our best hope, and yet it cannot be enforced. There is no conceivable practical means of ensuring 66 million people are adhering to the rules and making only a handful of essential weekly trips outside their front door.

The dispiriting scenes of busy thoroughfares may be a temporary blip, spurred by the knowledge that new emergency legislation has yet to be enacted and, with it, the accompanying enforcement measures.

Such factors have been compounded by the stultifying idiocy of a few high profile individuals, such as John Mason MSP, who tried to open his constituency office, only to be publicly derided by his own ministers, and Mike Ashley, the Sports Direct tycoon, whose short-lived attempts to open its stores were tantamount to corporate sociopathy. Both were quickly derided and disavowed of their thoughtless intentions. Even so, the threat of a dunces’ rebellion may have inspired others.

Indeed, the familiar buzz of the everyday, now so unsettling, may be a sign that the selfishness of a sizeable minority will continue. If that is the case - and I fear that it is - then the longstanding principle of policing by consent will be fatally undermined. The system that takes its place will be unlike anything we could have imagined. Sure, the messaging has been imperfect, but we can’t say we weren’t warned.

The tide may have gone too far out to turn around now. That does not mean we should try - if loved ones, friends, or colleagues persist in going about their normal routines, we have a duty to implore them to stop, and point out they are putting themselves, and everyone else, at risk.

Not everyone will heed the message, Not everyone can. The magnitude of what is happening, the frantic pace of it, is overwhelming and difficult to comprehend. That deserves sympathy and patience. Yet one message has to remain constant throughout.

If we are to reach land with the least damage possible, it is not to our politicians or governments that we have to look. It is to ourselves.

The measures introduced on Monday are, above all else, a test of our personal responsibility. They set each and every one of us a challenge of rising to meet our wider obligations to society.

The addresses of Mr Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon diverged a little in terms of detail and tone, but they shared a subtext. Our leaders are placing their faith in us. We can ill afford to abuse it.

That does not mean we should not continue to ask whether they are acting with the requisite speed and purpose, or question the efficacy of the newly announced powers in the days and weeks ahead.

Quite the opposite. It is hard to think of a time when the scrutiny of those in charge has ever been so important, and it is crucial that, for the duration of this lockdown, there is a constant dialogue. We have always cherished and protected our civil liberties in this country and that will, I hope, continue.

Yet this relentless contagion seeks to exact an even higher price. It threatens the lives of hundreds of thousands of people here, and millions more around the world. None of us living through the coming weeks and months will ever forget it. Let’s ensure that when we look back, we do so with no regrets.