Freedom Day is, in theory, less than a week away. After more than a year – which would have seemed absurd, back in the innocent days of early 2020 – something very close to normal life will supposedly be back.
Or will it? After the Government cancelled Christmas with a few days’ notice and abandoned the original June date for lifting the final restrictions, one can be forgiven for not getting one’s hopes up. Especially as it seems there may be another wobble going on.
Masks are going to remain mandatory on London transport. There are press reports that we might be back in lockdown as soon as September, as Boris Johnson abandons his language about unlocking being ‘irreversible’.
More worryingly still, pubs and nightclubs are reportedly going to be asked to introduce vaccine passports. That may or may not be fair in principle, but not if the nightlife sector is suddenly ordered to stay shut until either it or (God help us) the Government can work out how to make such a system work.
Clubbers ought too to be concerned by the normally libertarian Sajid Javid’s insistence that: “If I’m in a crowded or enclosed space, I will wear a face mask.” That obviously isn’t going to happen on a dancefloor, and if it becomes the Government’s plan for indoor mixing, it’s another red flag that clubbing might again fall through the cracks.
I have already written about the potential dangers of this for the long-term health of the sector. Suffice to say the people already out and organising illegal parties aren’t going to be too displeased if the Prime Minister leaves their clientele with no legal alternatives for another summer.
But there was another which I hadn’t previously considered, which is that the pandemic might simply be a chance for millions of our fellow citizens to indulge their worst authoritarian impulses and try to close the sector permanently.
This was the extraordinary finding of a recent poll for The Economist which found that more than a quarter of respondents favoured keeping nightclubs and casinos shuttered “permanently, regardless of Covid-19”.
Admittedly, this was the same panel which also showed almost one-in-five in favour of a permanent 10pm curfew, so it might be tempting to dismiss it. Some optimistic commentators also suggested that clubs were simply suffering from being lumped in with casinos, which is what people must really be objecting to.
Still, as a general principle it is wise never to bet against the latent authoritarianism of the British people – recall that a third of people told YouGov they backed the use of live ammunition to end the 2011 riots!
(And let’s leave for another time the suggestion that the young are keener on a permanent ban than the old…)
Moreover, a 10pm curfew is the sort of thing that, barring a catastrophic shift in the Overton Window, simply isn’t going to happen. Whereas opportunistic moralists exploiting the pandemic to squeeze a vulnerable sector to death actually might.
It does seem to be what local authorities tend to do when left to their own devices. London is littered with the empty remains of storied clubs, and it’s rare to visit a smaller town that offers the same nightlife it did ten or 20 years ago. It was only very recently that the Government finally acted to protect clubs from noise complaints from people who knowingly bought homes within earshot of them (surely one of nimbyism’s most contemptible manifestations).
This was always the danger of taking a piecemeal approach to ending the Covid-19 restrictions. Whilst it was quite understandable to grasp for as much of the old normal as ministers were willing to give us, it broke the link between everyone’s freedoms which might have ensured we all got our freedoms back.
Lockdown has been an unequal experience from the start. Contrast the experiences of the average white-collar versus the average blue-collar worker, or those with gardens versus those without.
Unlocking could yet go the same way. If the comfortable get back all the things they used to enjoy, it becomes a very cheap act of piety to insist on indefinite restrictions on the pleasures of others – especially if the activities in question are associated with drug-taking, promiscuity, and the broader spirit of youthful vice. (I suspect those who objected to nightclubs and casinos being lumped together because people could have moral objections to casinos might be making a false distinction.)
But with the young increasingly vaccinated and vaccines holding up against the new variants, the case for imposing extra restrictions on clubs grows thinner and thinner. At some point, Javid is just going to have to accept that allowing relatively low-risk people to engage in relatively high-risk activity is part of the new normal.
If not, they’ll just do it anyway. But the cost to the economy, and society, will be steeper.
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