21 June 2021

Endless errors have denied us the Freedom Day we deserve

By Sam Ashworth-Hayes

Some people seem to think that after the last year of coronavirus restrictions, an additional four week wait to return to life as normal is a relatively small matter; having lived a limited life for the good of others for this long, it seems almost churlish to complain about such a short delay. They are wrong. You should be furious. You should be furious because this time has been stolen from you by pure incompetence. We are prolonging the limbo of Covid restrictions because the Government has failed us.

The reason that life is not going back to normal today is that after 18 months Whitehall has proved unable to build an effective quarantine system for incoming travellers, and because, despite this failure, the Government decided to keep the borders open.

This is not oversimplifying, or speaking with the benefit of hindsight. On February 9 I published an article on this site titled ‘Close the borders, save the summer’, arguing that keeping the borders open risked the importation of aggressive variants that would undermine progress and cause the government to look to lockdown again. The risk was painfully obvious, and others including Tom Harwood, Alex Morton, Stuart Ritchie, Jonathon Kitson, and Sam Bowman made precisely the same point. The only people who seem to have been surprised by this are the Cabinet.

The last year has been the story of the Government failing over and over in precisely the same ways. It behaves like a compulsive gambler, constantly risking a far bigger loss in the pursuit of a small chance it won’t have to pay right now. A brief review of the pandemic shows this pattern painfully clearly: taking weeks to impose restrictions on travellers from China, planning to get to herd immunity by infecting half the country, delaying lockdown over fears of behavioural fatigue, telling people over and over that facemasks don’t work, launching Eat Out to Help Out, which spread virus cases through the summer, delaying lockdowns – the list goes on.

What makes this even more frustrating is that the actually excellent parts of the UK’s response have been squandered by these political failures. We lead the world in sequencing Covid genomes, identifying variants and flagging them up. And because we kept the borders open, we’ve imported plenty of those variants to identify.

As people are fond of pointing out, border controls probably would not have prevented the Indian variant from arriving indefinitely. But if India had gone onto the red list when Pakistan and Bangladesh did, we’d have more than likely delayed the arrival of the Indian variant by a few weeks – time enough for us to have offered at least one vaccine dose to every adult, and quite possibly have double dosed everyone over the age of 30.

The speed of our vaccine roll-out would have given us a good shot at being the first country in Europe to return to life as normal. Instead, despite our head-start, Boris Johnson’s errors mean we may well end up reopening around the same time as everywhere else.

What makes these errors truly unforgivable is that the British people have proven so willing to make necessary sacrifices. While Johnson’s Government dithers over lockdowns and border controls, the British people want the virus beaten and life to go back to normal. They are desperate to get vaccinated, they will wear masks in public, they will stay home when they have to. Some 72% of Brits want their child vaccinated. 71% supported the delay to ending restrictions. Two weeks back 70% wanted to keep masks after June 21, and 61% wanted to keep distancing in pubs and restaurants. Two thirds even supported cancelling Christmas.

The problem is that this latest delay is not a necessary sacrifice; it is an unnecessary one that was wholly preventable. And it is scandalous that we are once again being forced to bear the costs of the Government’s incompetence.

If a justice minister were to issue mistaken four week jail terms to a fraction of the population, we would expect their immediate resignation. When ministers take decisions – or fail to take them – that lead directly to thousands of deaths and the nation living under lockdown, nothing happens. It is far more comforting to assume that there was simply nothing that could have been done – the world is too complicated, the virus too cunning – to have stopped it. The alternative, that everything we suffered through has been unnecessary, is too terrifying to contemplate.

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Sam Ashworth-Hayes is a journalist and economist.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.