I hesitate to call myself a golfer since that implies prowess I cannot claim. I play golf and have done so for more than 40 years, a triumph of hope over expectation if ever there was one. My enthusiasm is rarely matched by performance but in the words of John Betjeman, there is, occasionally, A glorious, sailing, bounding drive/That made me glad I was alive.
From Thursday that sense of well-being will no longer be attainable for a month at least and, I fear, probably for longer. True, as autumn advances, fair-weather golfers tend to put their clubs away until the spring. But hardier souls will venture out at this time of year.
It’s good exercise, tops up our vitamin D, involves a five-mile walk which, particularly if you are carrying a golf bag, uses up a fair few calories. It is also socially distanced, especially if, like me, you are mostly in the rough while your playing partner’s ball is sitting smugly in the middle of the fairway. I can go an entire round and only meet up with my opponent on the tees and greens.
Golf courses have been open since mid-May. They have gone out of their way to limit contacts, preventing players touching flags, removing rakes from bunkers, covering water fountains and cordoning off changing rooms. To my knowledge there are no Covid-ravaged clubs or swathes of ill golfers, which, given the game’s demographic make-up, must tell you something.
So why is golf being banned during the lockdown? I don’t want to enter a plea just for my sport, but while you can just about see why football or rugby might be caught up because everyone is in each other’s faces, that is not true of golf – or tennis and swimming for that matter. Why are they to be forbidden?
In the Commons on Monday, several Conservative MPs put these points to Boris Johnson. Essentially, his explanation was that in order to be “consistent”, these sports had to be closed down. If you take one piece of the Jenga block away, he said, it all falls over.
Well, I’m sorry, but that does not strike me as a properly scientific reason for stopping people carrying out lawful, safe and beneficial activities.
Mr Johnson, who looked as miserable as he must feel, said the data left him with no option but to abandon the three-tier strategy that allowed areas with few Covid cases to carry on pretty much as normal, while focusing efforts on places where they were rising and putting pressure on hospitals.
This is still the approach in Scotland, though they have five tiers. But the rationale is the same: why impose restrictions on people in the Highlands and Islands when the big problem is in Glasgow?
In England, parts of the South West, Kent and East Anglia have seen very little Covid yet they are to be caught in the net. Mr Johnson and his advisers say this is because the incidence was growing even faster there than elsewhere.
But that just shows you can do anything with statistics. If you start from a low base then any increase will proportionately look very large. If you have two cases going up to four, that is a 100 per cent increase but it is not very many.
The Prime Minister’s main worry is not the number of cases but the dearth of NHS intensive care beds, which raises the question of why there are so few compared with Germany, for instance. This entire strategy is designed to stop people ending up being treated in hospital corridors or waiting rooms, as has happened during bad flu epidemics, as recently as 2000.
Mr Johnson said in the Commons that for the first time the “sacred principle” underpinning the NHS – that people would be cared for when they needed it – faced being broken. No one wants to see that but it would not be the first time. Moreover, during the last lockdown, thousands of people with non-Covid ailments did not get treated at all, a public health time-bomb waiting to explode.
The Prime Minister continues to assert that we can “defeat” this virus. We can’t, as his chief scientific adviser told a parliamentary select committee just a few weeks ago. Sir Patrick Vallance said it would become endemic and we would have to live with it.
Mr Johnson said it would be extirpated, just as humanity has seen off every other contagion, but that is simply not the case. Just one virus in history, smallpox, has ever been eradicated.
It is true that, in this country, illnesses that were commonplace when I was young like diphtheria, polio, scarlet fever, measles, mumps and the rest have been suppressed by vaccines, but they are not dead, just dormant. Coronaviruses are hard to keep down because, like flu, they mutate.
Living with the virus means accepting that people will get it and that some, especially the elderly, will succumb, as they do now of flu or pneumonia or old age. Jonathan Van Tam, the deputy chief medical officer, recently said the key motivation behind the lockdown strategy was “we cannot let our old people die”. But JVT, as Boris calls him, cannot bestow immortality.
The bewildering array of rules and regulations now governing what we can and cannot do is almost impossible to comprehend. When in history has it been illegal to see your own mother? Those making a plea for outdoor sports to continue have been accused of jeopardising public health and yet their beneficial nature is actually a positive not a negative. That is especially true of children’s weekend sports. While schools are staying open, many inner city establishments do not have exercise facilities.
One minister was quoted deriding the 257,022 people (me among them) who have signed a petition asking for golf to be exempt. “Which f—— planet are they on?”, he asked. How could anyone risk lives for a round of golf? I agree: no one should. But we aren’t. There is no evidence that the virus would spread if courses remained open.
If there is then let the Government provide it. If there isn’t, they have no right to ban it. The power, yes, but no right.