These are curious times and, for some reason, the image of a Second World War poster floated into my mind.

Perhaps you know it? A brave soldier reaching out in a gesture of appeal. The slogan: Is your journey really necessary?

As I recalled this – from history, you understand, not personal experience – another plane flew far over my head. Is your journey really necessary?

Self-evidently, we face personal choices as to our response to this hideous plague, and its latest variant, described by the First Minister as “the most challenging development of the pandemic for quite some time”.

However, there are also questions to be faced about the fundamental nature of governance, about the malleable border between enforced, statutory rule and common consent.

The word of the moment in this regard is “proportionality”. If governments fail to act, then they may permit the plague to spread still more rapidly and calamitously. Lives are in jeopardy.

However, if they act too hastily, too harshly, then the economy on which our society depends may be weakened beyond easy repair.

On Monday, the rules governing Covid in Scotland will be amended slightly. But more had been expected. There was open talk of extending the use of vaccine passports to restaurants, pubs and other venues.

In the event, ministers backed down. I am told that the question of proportionality was to the fore when the change of tack was agreed by the Scottish Cabinet.

One who was there told me that, in advance, it was “touch and go” as to whether the tougher constraints should be applied. The decision, on balance, was that they should not.

Partly, this reflects pragmatism: a cost/benefit calculation as to what would be gained and lost. Partly, it reflects legal considerations: might the proportionality of the decisions be tested in court, and perhaps found wanting?

Partly, it reflects politics. The Opposition Conservatives at Holyrood were volubly expressing disquiet at the approach being considered by ministers, and perhaps gaining some traction.

Mostly, though, this gradualist approach, which has been sustained into the Omicron phase, reflects the developing public attitude.

Folk are irked beyond measure by constraint. They loathe taking their masks on and off as they enter shops or garages. They understand the need, they sympathise. But they are fed up.

Both the Scottish and UK Governments reflected that feeling in their response to Omicron.

Ministers would not be human if they had not permitted themselves a brief groan. Will this hideous plague ever relent? What is this now, another blasted mutation to jeopardise our lives?

As Professor Linda Bauld makes amply clear in my latest Herald podcast, we do not yet know the full extent of the challenge that will emerge in practice from Omicron, particularly in Scotland where vaccination is successfully dispersed.

But the potential threat might be thought to justify constraint by diktat, a move back towards lockdown. Yet that is not happening.

In Edinburgh and London, the ministerial talk is of urging, asking and encouraging: imploring, even. With the obvious exception of new travel restrictions, the approach mostly falls short of ordering and legislating.

Christmas? Carry on celebrating, with caution. (Although I think it unlikely there will be a shindig in Downing Street any time soon.)

All of which mirrors the public mood. It is governance motivated by the need for consent. However, there is a deeper thought.

For some, the zeitgeist is one of scepticism, mistrust even. That is particularly true on the Right of politics.

We saw it with Brexit where there was open disdain for received wisdom on the economy, even when – especially when – that wisdom was proferred by those put in place to consider such matters.

Experts, we were told, had had their day. Comparable contumely can be heard directed at those who warn about the causes and impact of climate change.

Now, from some, we hear similar views expressed about Covid. You know the mantra: over-stated, exaggerated by medics for their own ends, really not much worse than the cold.

If you want a visual image, contemplate a permanent, sceptical, quizzical smile, verging on a sneer.

I understand the fundamental origins of such views. They arise partly in reaction to generations of “Whitehall knows best” pronouncements. They are a version of the frontier loathing of Washington rule which brought Donald Trump to power.

A variant of this spreading view can be heard, echoing, on the Conservative back benches and, indeed, in UK ministerial ranks. It has a direct impact upon the Prime Minister who must factor this into the overall tone he adopts.

Nicola Sturgeon has few such direct challenges to confront. Yet she too is cautious. As noted earlier, she is concerned about legal proportionality and about broader public insurrection.

More broadly, she has to work within an atmosphere partly created by the Westminster approach.

She cannot depart too dramatically from the PM’s position, for example on air travel. For one thing, it would be impractical: Scots could fly to Manchester. For another, it would raise complaints of unfairness.

For nearby radical responses to Omicron, glance towards the European Union. Austria is extending lockdown. Germany is talking about mandatory vaccination.

Meanwhile, the European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, has said all EU member states need a “common approach”, perhaps collectively considering that idea of obliging every citizen to be vaccinated, unless medically exempt.

I am rather inclined to discount this. Firstly, she is only floating the notion, without substance at this point. Secondly, it sounds to me like the Commission trying to wrest back control from member states, trying to reassert its influence.

However, the notion brings us back to the limits of political power. Given prevailing views, I think it likely, for example, that mandatory vaccination would tend to generate a counter-productive backlash.

Better perhaps to appeal to people to take their jabs in the interests of protecting their family and friends (and, in the process, the wider community.)

This appeal is now, customarily, sweetened by welcome notes of hope. Stick with it, a wee bit more, we will get there, light on the horizon.

The soldier in that poster would understand.

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