The week on Planet Normal: more rules that make no sense, and an idea to save Christmas

As the country slips back towards a lockdown, we chart a route through the mayhem on our metaphorical rocket of right-thinking

Allison Pearson and Liam Halligan
We call out pomposity, lift the lid on what’s really happening and have a pretty good a laugh along the way Credit: Planet Normal

Will lockdowns and the “rule of six” be over by Christmas? If not, expect the British public to come up with a range of wheezes to ensure family Yuletide still goes off with a bang.

After anti-Covid measures came in last week, gatherings of more than six people are now illegal. The new laws have left many of us baffled – and been widely ridiculed. Jokes have emerged about new editions of Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven with references to Peter or Janet crossed out in crayon. And how about that 1960s Western movie classic – The Magnificent Six?

Here on Planet Normal, we’ve been supportive, if often critical, of the government’s lockdown measures. But these new rules make no sense. Since mid-June, influenza and pneumonia have contributed to more weekly deaths than Covid, according to the government’s own figures.

Yes, Covid “cases” are up – but isn’t that inevitable given the sharp rise in testing? And this “second wave” has not brought significantly more virus-related hospitalisations or fatalities.

The number of overall deaths in recent weeks has actually plummeted well below the five-year average for England and Wales ­– suggesting mortality during 2020 as a whole could, despite Covid, turn out lower than average for a normal year.

Just 78 people died “of or with” coronavirus during the first week of September, the weekly figure below 100 for the first time since lockdown began in March. Just one per cent of deaths now mention coronavirus on the death certificate compared to 13 per cent mentioning influenza and pneumonia.

With ministers warning fresh local lockdown measures “aren’t just for a few weeks”, the economic fall-out will be massive. Signs of recovery we’ve seen since July, when lockdown eased, could be snuffed out. “We’ve been hanging on, desperately,” writes Sarah, a Planet Normal listener who runs an events business, which had a pre-lockdown workforce of thirty. “Our bookings were coming back and we thought we could survive”.

The “rule of six”, though, has ended any chance her business can recover. “Everyone cancelled, within hours of it being announced,” she writes. “Having fought for months, we’re throwing in the towel”.

For now, headline unemployment – those actively searching for work - remains quite low. But the statistical fine print shows 2.7 million claimed unemployment-related benefits in August – well over twice as many in March, suggesting a true unemployment rate of almost 9 per cent. And when furloughing ends next month, jobless numbers could spiral.

There’s now widespread speculation the “rule of six” will still be in place this Christmas. “People have been compliant before, but this feels like a turning point,” says Allison, on our latest Planet Normal podcast (which you can listen to by clicking the player below). “These new rules aren’t respected – and a sense of the ridiculous is kicking in”.

Like schools and workplaces, sporting events are exempted from measures impacting households. We discuss how it may work in the episode above.

“So how about, when we get the extended family together for Christmas dinner, we swap our knives and forks for table tennis bats?” asks Liam. “We can put up a net between the turkey and the bread sauce!”

Or here’s another plan. With hunting and shooting parties also allowed, Yuletide guests can sit in their Christmas hats, each with a loaded shotgun. A range of birds could be released, free to fly around the living room. “Fancy a bit of pheasant Grandma? Hang on – watch your head!” And BANG!! The tasty bird – fresh as you like – could land right on her plate.

Public scepticism towards “the rule of six” is made worse by weird variations across the UK – applying to all ages across England, but not children under 12 in Scotland or Wales. And, meanwhile, the costs of ongoing lockdown escalate – and not just in terms of lost education and livelihoods. For many of us, the NHS now seems inaccessible – with many GPs refusing to see patients and non-Covid treatments curtailed, resulting in countless preventable deaths.

As our TV and radio news churn out what Allison calls “doom porn”, the government needs to counter, not add to that narrative. Yes, this virus is nasty but we know the median age of those it kills is over 80 – and mostly those with other life-threatening conditions.

The vast, vast majority of the young and middle-aged display no, or very mild symptoms. So, as the excellent Oxford epidemiologist Professor Sunetra Gupta has argued: “While aggressively protecting the elderly and others we know are vulnerable, everyone else should be allowed to get on with their lives”.

Here on Planet Normal, we say that while some lockdown measures may be justified, they should be discriminating and focussed on particular localities as needed, while paying special attention to the elderly. Tell us what you think – by writing to [email protected].

Join us on our metaphorical rocket of right-thinking, our capsule of common sense, by listening to the latest Planet Normal podcast, which comes out every Thursday. It’s free – at kaleistyleguide.com/planetnormal or via iTunes, Spotify or wherever else you get your podcasts.

'Taking the mickey out of people is vital'

“You have to laugh” – as we often say on Planet Normal. Yet so many of us are left cold by the comics showcased on television and radio.

There are signs that the new BBC boss Tim Davie gets that. Accepting Aunty’s comedy offering is “too left-wing”, a “radical overhaul” is apparently on the way.

That means we could soon be seeing more of Brexit-backing stand-up Geoff Norcott, our latest Planet Normal guest. Having grown up on a South London council estate, he’s a natural small-c conservative. “The BBC has been losing its working-class audience,” he says. “We can be blunt – and that doesn’t always sit well with politically-sensitive comedy”.

Geoff worries that the fashionable safety-first approach threatens what comedy is all about. “No-one should be immune from having the piss taken out of them,” he says. “That would be really dangerous, given this nation’s psyche”.

For generations, our ability to laugh at ourselves, each other and our leaders has indeed got Britain through tough times. “We should be really proud of our comedy,” he says. “It’s anathema to the public mood to shut down too many angles of creativity”.

The offend-no-one woke culture should itself be lampooned. “Taking the mickey out of holier-than-thou people is vital,” argues Geoff. “If you put yourself on a pedestal, there’s only one way you can go”.

But while “loads of comedians have a problem with extreme woke”, they fear being “cancelled” or dubbed “fascist adjacent” if they attack it. So “mainstream broadcasters risk missing out”, as cutting-edge comedy moves to YouTube and the digital streaming services.

With licence fee sales down 250,000 on last year, and public support fast ebbing, the BBC must rapidly reconnect with the population it’s supposed to serve. Some proper, grown-up comedy would be a good place to start.

Quotes from Geoff Norcott

  • “Let me just reassure all the woke, lefty comics that their darkest fears are not true – yet”
  • “Dave Allen, Ronnie Barker, Ricky Gervais … that kind of talent would struggle to break through now, given the minefield comedians have to navigate”
  • “The EU has got plenty of cards in these negotiations, but they haven’t got much comedy. I suspect they’re stock-piling Monty Python as we speak. There’s probably a mountain of old British comedy DVDs somewhere near Strasbourg”.
  • “Every time a comic apologises for a joke, and doesn’t mean it, in my view an angel dies”.

Listeners React

  • “One week back at school to the day, and an entire year group has been sent home for two weeks. What about working parents? What about our children’s mental health?”  Victoria
  • “University libraries are closing – as a former teacher I find that utterly staggering. There is no risk-free strategy in this life – especially in jobs involving that most wonderful of wild cards: people” Karen
  • “As a young gay man, there is an expectation of what my opinions ‘should’ be. I increasingly face hostility (and often abuse) merely for voicing my views - which often oppose the ‘woke’ agenda” Calum
  • “My wife and I have given up on TV news – and your podcast is a much-needed pressure relief valve. Visiting Planet Normal is the highlight of our listening week ... and, as a lad, I always wanted to be an astronaut” John