For a while, it seemed that hope would triumph over experience. Despite the government’s dismal record of moving the goalposts, the prime minister had been making optimistic noises about the data. The reopening of schools, pubs and shops has proceeded without an overwhelming increase in infections. Hospitalizations and deaths from Covid were at low levels. The R-number increased, as would be expected given the resumption of some social contact, but it seemed clear that the numbers of positive tests in and of themselves were not to be feared thanks to the vaccination of vulnerable people. .
Ultimately, however, Boris Johnson’s commitment to freedom could not survive a backlash from a risk-averse scientific and technocratic class that never appreciated the costs of the lockdown. The rise of the Delta / Indian variant has allowed officials to relaunch their irresponsible campaign of fear. First, warnings about the effects of variants convinced the government to backtrack on overseas travel, with suggestions from ministers that limiting our freedom to go abroad would protect freedom at home. Now even the return of freedom home is being sacrificed, in what is described as a reasonable delay.
Is it just a delay? Last night, during his press conference in Downing Street, the Prime Minister insisted that this is only a temporary four-week hiatus to allow more people to get vaccinated. The government presents its decision as a pragmatic postponement, not an annulment, and which will have no lasting significance.
But it is much more important than that. It’s a betrayal of thousands of businesses, already on the brink of ruin by lockdown and social distancing, that have spent significant sums in preparation for a full reopening on June 21. Ministers might say their mantra has always been “data, not dates”. However, has anyone in government bothered to calculate how many companies will be bankrupted by weeks of additional restrictions? It’s a betrayal from the public, many of whom have only been able to endure in recent months because they firmly knew an end was in sight. They embraced the vaccination, believing it would be used to reopen. Instead, they find themselves under tighter restrictions than at this time last year, when there was no jab.
It is above all a betrayal of conservative principles. Freedom is not treated as an inalienable right of every individual, to be restricted only in the most extreme emergencies, but as conditional – to be ignored whenever it suits the government.
The argument for the state to continue to intervene in our lives has not been made. We will never be “safe” from Covid-19. It is likely to become an endemic disease that societies have to live with, perhaps indefinitely. The aim of the vaccination campaign was not to eliminate the risk, but to reduce it to manageable levels, which arguably has been done. It may not be possible to completely sever the link between cases and hospitalizations.
Anyway, will the situation really be much different in four weeks? Yes, more people could have the full protection of the jab. But there will be a part of it that will not have benefited from its protection and may never be. The number of positive tests could even be higher by mid-July. While the government remains concerned about the risk of the NHS being overwhelmed, especially now that it has to deal with the non-Covid backlog, it is extraordinary that so little seems to have been done to increase capacity. If we are really in a race between variants and jabs, why has the vaccination program not been massively accelerated?
The government can pretend it is just following the science. Yet it could well prove to be a defining moment in the Prime Minister’s political career – when he missed his opportunity to free the country from Covid restrictions and end the improper bartering on our freedoms. Already, the contours of a longer-term control architecture are starting to emerge, with calls for some social distancing to remain permanently. Will it one day be deemed “safe” to return to normal?
In an ideal world, Parliament would vote against this unnecessary extension of the lockdown. Unfortunately, only a handful of backbench Conservative MPs could be counted on to oppose it. The government faces no real opposition from the Labor Party, which, as might be expected, complied with the delay, seeing it only as a reason to spend more money. Millions of people, especially those who enjoy the benefits of working from home, seem to be content to stay in a state of semi-hibernation. The prime minister is popular, still enjoying the aftermath of the Tories’ victory in the Hartlepool by-election.
History books might not be that nice. Unless the remaining restrictions are lifted by July 19 at the latest, Boris Johnson is likely to be remembered not only as the Prime Minister who took our freedoms away from us, but was unwilling to return them to us. Does he have the courage to avoid this fate?