Yet scientists, too, are split – if not on numbers – then on strategy.
The grandly titled Great Barrington Declaration of two weeks ago, which proposes that the World Health Organization’s suppression strategy be replaced with a “herd immunity” approach, was met with the John Snow Memorandum, another lofty document which demands we double down on “restrictions” until a vaccine or effective treatment comes along.
Both “lack rigour, humility and empathy,” said the independently minded geneticist Prof Francois Balloux. “They whip up fervour in the convinced, but neither even attempts to engage with anyone outside the ‘true believers’. I find them both unhelpful.”
Surfers know that when the swell starts to rise you must either get to shore quickly or double down and paddle out to sea to avoid being crushed by the approaching breakers. What you must never do (although it is always the temptation) is dither in the impact zone.
Yet this is where the UK appeared to be this weekend; a nation too divided and fatigued to paddle in either direction, even as the seas around us were rising.
It raises the question, alluded to by the Prime Minister in June when he urged us not to throw away the sacrifices of April and March: is Britain’s Covid response going to bring with it all of the considerable costs but none of the benefits?
Winners and losers
The UK strategy is one of suppression, to hold the virus down at levels low enough to prevent the NHS and other services from being overwhelmed until a vaccine or a cure comes along.
Its costs are counted in vast capital investment, lost economic output and a good deal of collateral human and social damage. The hoped for benefits include the avoidance of overflowing mortuaries, maintenance of essential services and minimisation of long term economic and social scarring.
It is the same strategy as is being pursued across much of the rest of the world, with varying degrees of success.
In countries which acted early, like Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea, life has almost returned to normal but for an almost complete ban on international travel.
Their early investments in pandemic preparedness have paid off. Large scale deaths have been avoided, and economic losses, while significant, remain small in the great scheme of things. They are the surfers who got quickly to shore at the first signs of the impending storm.
In Europe things are very different. Few countries, if any, were properly prepared in advance and most have had a much greater incidence of the virus to deal with as a result.
Those that have done best, as measured by excess mortality, include Bulgaria, Slovakia, Czechia, Hungary, Poland, Norway, Denmark and Finland and Germany. At the other end of the scale sit the UK, Spain, Italy, Belgium, Sweden and Holland.
A paper in Nature this week said the varying outcomes were best explained by “differences in how well countries have managed the pandemic and the resilience and preparedness of the health and social care systems”.
Today in Europe, only Norway and Finland look like they have got safely to shore. The second wave of the virus is crashing across the rest of the continent and governments are urgently tightening social distancing measures to avoid the crest of the approaching break.
Chancellor Angela Merkel warned on Wednesday that Germany, which only weeks ago appeared to have escaped the second wave, could be heading for “disaster” unless drastic action is taken.
Children have been told to take blankets to school so the windows can be kept open and Mrs Merkel is fighting a battle with regional authorities to institute an internal travel ban.
“We don’t expect the numbers to fall tomorrow. They will continue to rise,” Helge Braun, Merkel’s chief of staff, said on Friday. “We are at the beginning of a really big second wave. Things are significantly more serious than they were in the spring.”
But as others paddled out for protection, the UK – or England at least – was still dithering in what may yet turn out to be a rerun of early March.
Jeremy Farrar, Director of the Wellcome Trust and a member of Sage, told the BBC: “I think we’re in the worst of all worlds here.
“I think we’ve got to come together as a country. This fragmentation and frankly making this either a north-south or a party political issue – that’s a very dangerous route to go down.”