1 April 2021

Timid Easter ‘unlocking’ is nothing to celebrate

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‘It’ll be over by Christmas’ is a phrase that came to sum up the romanticism and naivety of the summer of 1914. That initial optimism was soon met with the reality of a protracted and bloody war. In November 2020, just as clinical trials were showing positive results for the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines, Matt Hancock said that life could be back to normal ‘after Easter’. And here we are staring down the barrel of at least another two months of intrusive constraints on our lives.

The fight against Coronavirus doesn’t have the violence or the poetry of the Great War, but let’s not downplay the enormous sacrifices it has demanded of us all. And while, politicians making predictions are always hostages to fortune, and Hancock was speaking before the Kent variant took hold, that doesn’t change how hollow his words sound now that Easter has arrived.

Sure, technically some of the restrictions have been lifted. Great news for denizens of golf courses and Hampstead Ladies’ Pond, but otherwise pretty thin pickings. It’s no longer illegal to drink cans with a few friends in the park, but anyone who’s opened their front door, at least where I live, knows that people have been doing that anyway. Families hoping to make up for a sad, lonely Christmas with an Easter reunion will have to do it outdoors with no hugging – even for those who are fully vaccinated. People who celebrate other festivals, like Passover or Holi, didn’t even get that small concession.

Shops, pubs, museums, theatres, children’s play centres – so many of things that elevate life ­– remain shut. For those who run these businesses that means continued uncertainty about their future. Although the Government’s ‘roadmap’ does give us a route back to normality, Ministers have given themselves plenty of excuses to change course – and parliament recently voted to extend emergency powers for another six months. So while some newspapers declared the 29th March ‘Happy Monday’, for many daily existence in Britain remains a joyless slog. Why are we still living like this?

The answer, we’re told, is to be found in ‘data not dates’. Other writers have done a brilliant job of digging into what the data actually shows, not least Christopher Snowdon on these pages. Suffice to say that the numbers of people dying from coronavirus are now about where they were last June, when we were enjoying considerably greater freedoms. At that point there was far less resistance to the disease, as fewer people had contracted it and no one had been vaccinated. The latest ONS figures suggest 55% of us are now immune. So either the Government was reckless back then or it’s being ludicrously over-cautious now.

A ‘slow-and-steady’ approach may sound sensible – and perhaps the reason the public broadly support it is because we’ve accepted our hermit-like reality as the status-quo. But keeping us in lockdown isn’t the ‘do-nothing’ option, it has serious consequences. Every extra day means longer NHS waiting lists, more victims of domestic abuse, widening inequality, declining mental health, not to mention £billions of taxpayers’ money. And, even for those who have been spared catastrophe, lockdown is miserable.

We have seen the mess EU countries and now Canada have got themselves into by doggedly following the ‘precautionary principle’, to the extent that people have been denied the life-saving AstraZeneca vaccine. There’s a risk that Britain is falling into the same trap, with the Government’s extreme risk aversion causing real harm.

It’s a dangerous game politically too. The recent election result in Israel, where Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party lost seats, has shown that a successful vaccine roll-out and a reopened economy are not necessarily rewarded at the ballot box. As Anshel Pfeffer has written, the basic dividing lines in Israeli society weren’t shifted, only deepened, by Coronavirus. Likewise, in Britain the underlying challenges the country faces – forgotten regions, a broken social care system, the housing crisis, generational, racial and gender disparities – haven’t gone away. The longer we stay locked down the worse they’ll get.

There’s also the question of why, if the Government has such pride and confidence in its vaccine scheme, it’s so reluctant to reap the benefits. If the vaccines work as well as we think, then people who’ve had them are as safe as it’s realistically possible to be from the virus. And if those of us in lower priority groups are less likely to need hospital treatment, then the whole idea of ‘protecting the NHS’ becomes absurd. In other words, the fact that we’re still such a long way from a return to normality rather undermines the achievement of vaccinating the most vulnerable so quickly.

But consistency and logic aren’t necessarily the tools policymakers reach for in a crisis, and our painfully slow progress out of lockdown is characteristic of the way the goal posts have continually shifted. Another example is the growing drumbeat in favour of ‘vaccine passports’. Michael Gove recently met with sceptical MPs to discuss the idea of venues like pubs being able to ask for proof of immunity, which suggests that Government is taking the idea seriously. So even when we do reopen, a significant proportion of the population could still be unable to participate in normal life.

Some libertarians have made the case that businesses have freedom of association and lawmakers shouldn’t be dictating who they serve. But it’s not industry calling for this measure; it’s ministers floating it at press conferences and behind-the-scenes briefings. Chairs of big pub chains like Shepherd Neame and Wetherspoon’s have said such a move would be disastrous for their businesses. And free market arguments for vaccine passports seem to overlook that it’s only the state that can dole out vaccines and certify who has received one, so ultimately it will be officials, not landlords, deciding who can go to the pub. It’s a funny sort of liberty that privileges the rights of businesses and big government above those of individuals.

This week’s sunshine, the return of outdoor socialising and the continuing success of the vaccine rollout have injected a welcome dose of optimism back into the public mood. And while I hope all CapX readers will enjoy their new freedoms this Easter weekend, we should also be mindful of how much we have lost, and how much we have yet to regain. Having a drink with a friend, embracing a grandparent or feeling the light on your face shouldn’t be celebrated, they should be everyday experiences – so mundane we never even think about them.

As war poet John McRae wrote, “Short days ago We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, Loved and were loved.” There are some things we should be able to take for granted in a society like ours. One dreadful year shouldn’t make us forget that.

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Alys Denby is Deputy Editor of CapX.