The mantra has been to follow the science, which seems clear enough, but when those with the test tubes and microscopes fall out, taking diametrically opposite paths based on the same science, what is the layperson to do? Mask or not to mask? Isolate until there’s a vaccine? Gobble down vitamin D? Or shrug and let chance and the virus have its way?

There are two bitterly opposed, armed camps – armed with facts and theses, sending out broadsides at each other, and not just in academic journals but in print and in the broadcast media. On the one side there’s the establishment, with the lockdowns, the circuit breaks, the spiralling tiers – basically those loading for both the UK and Scottish Governments; and in the other, the shepherds of herd immunity (and in the early days it appeared that Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock were in that camp), who argue that there’s a pandemic of fear and only when enough of us have been infected will we beat Covid-19.

This, then, is a who’s who of the combatants – all with letters after their name and tranches of academic papers published – who would probably swing punches at each other if they could do it unobserved so instead trade invective.

On one side are the refuseniks, the scientists who don’t accept the orthodoxy, the raft of present measures, led by Oxford University professors Sunetra Gupta and Carl Heneghan. On the other, the massed ranks of the establishment scientists: Jason Leitch, Chris Whitty, Patrick Vallance, and the outrider who set it all off until he broke his own rules for a surreptitious cuddle, Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London.

But first a brief reprise about the path to conflict and facts that we can rely on before it splits into two tracks. On January 20, the Chinese government admitted there was a virus transmitted from human to human, as yet unnamed. Its epicentre was Wuhan and three days later lockdown was imposed.

However, this came in the middle of the Lunar New Year – a travel season that sees the largest human migration on the planet, and almost half of the population of Wuhan – around five million people – had left the city. In Britain, we did nothing to curb, test or trace the tens of thousands who arrived.

Meanwhile, China was curtailing its own epidemic, not by high-tech apps or spy technology but a sharp lockdown, coupled with old-school hard labour – pavement tramping by thousands with clipboards and questionnaires which were then collated and the virus carriers and those at risk identified. It worked.

Gupta, along with almost all in the scientific community, believes that the virus arrived in Britain not in March, but in January, with this influx from Wuhan and other parts of China.

The UK Government was eventually stirred and in mid-March imposed a lockdown, while throwing hundreds of millions of pounds to private companies for PPE and the promised “world-beating” test-and-trace app which is yet to claim the title.

Controversially, it is now argued that there is no convincing scientific evidence that these contact-tracing apps even help stop the spread of Covid. Allison Gardner, a lecturer in computer science at Keele University, notes that there’s a very low take-up – probably because of a lack of public trust – and even when a contact tracer calls someone at risk only 18 per cent agree to self-isolate. This comes from a UK Government study of 30,000 people.

There’s also a technology problem: the apps only work on smartphones and over 60% of over-65s, the greatest risk group, don’t have a mobile internet device. The apps are also based on bluetooth, rather than the more reliable GPS, with false results adding to confusion and sapping public confidence.

War was openly declared between the two sides, Oxford v Imperial you could say, earlier this month on a country estate in Massachusetts. In a stage-managed production, three unmasked scientists gathered round an oak table to sign what was called the Great Barrington declaration, named after the spot on which they were communing, which was then toasted in champagne, videoed and put online.

The one Brit present was Gupta, a theoretical epidemiologist at Oxford. The declaration’s core claim is that if the virus is left to run and normal life goes on then communal, or “herd”, immunity will be reached in the population and Covid will run its course and wither away. The proviso is that the most vulnerable should be shielded.

The meeting was at the libertarian American Institute for Economic Research which is committed to “pure freedom” (whatever that entails) and wants the role of government “sharply confined”. It also has a history of funding controversial research, downplaying the environmental crisis, as well as pushing the upside of Asian sweatshops supplying multinational companies.

Gupta denies that she has become a tool of the right wing though following the declaration she flew to Washington to meet President Trump’s Covid adviser Scott Atlas, a man criticised by 78 of his former colleagues at Stanford for his “falsehoods and misrepresentation of science”.

The Oxford academic rejects the political characterisation of her, saying she is “far to the left of Keir Starmer” and that she believes in universal basic income, nationalisation and investment in public services, only one of which the Labour leader presently supports.

But, while the the bulk of scientific opinion held that normality could be resumed only when a vaccine arrived, which might be 2023, Gupta argues we can have it “in three to six months” without injections. Karol Sikora, the oncologist and former director of the WHO’s cancer programme, is another in the let-it-run camp. This view prompted Professor Sir Robert Lechler, president of the Academy of Medical Medical Sciences, to describe it as both unethical and “simply not possible”. Sir Simon Stevens, head of NHS England, called it “age-based apartheid”.

“That’s everyone being polite,” added Dr Rupert Beale of the Francis Crick Institute in London. “What everyone really thinks is that this is all f*****g stupid.”

The March lockdown was triggered by research carried out by Ferguson of Imperial College London, whose predictive model postulated that 500,000 people might die without such an intervention. Sage, the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, and Health Secretary Matt Hancock, concurred. Ferguson was, of course, forced to resign from Sage in May when he broke social distancing rules to meet up with his married girlfriend.

Infection rates fell in the spring and summer but optimism gave way to alarm when hospital admissions began rising again across Europe. This rise also seems to counter Gupta’s herd immunity argument that increased antibody levels would provide immunity, as some of the countries and regions hit hardest in the spring are again suffering steep rises now.

Spain, France and the Britain were all among the worst-affected countries in Europe in April and now it looks no different. Paris and Madrid were both badly hit in the spring and autumn. And the patterns are similar across the north of England, Liverpool and Manchester, and Scotland’s central belt, prompting the present restrictions and the promise of five tiers of misery to come.

Does this mean that the restrainers have beaten the free-reiners? Probably not. The next battleground may well be over the efficacy of a vaccine and its take-up, with many saying they will refuse it, throwing up again the issue of herd immunity.

So far there has only been one undisputed winner: coronavirus.