The Daily Telegraph
This isn’t a delay, but a disastrous trap for the PM and the country
Boris Johnson’s lockdown retreat leaves the door open to semi-permanent restrictions on liberties
Small events can have world-altering effects. This is well understood in physics; chaos theory dictates that, in our complex and interconnected world, a butterfly can flap its wings in Brazil and trigger a tornado in Texas. But, in politics, the sentiment behind the “butterfly effect” is strangely underappreciated.
We have already seen its power at the very start of the pandemic. The world has probably changed forever due to the West’s decision to follow China’s lead in adopting lockdown to control Covid-19. This draconian policy was never part of liberal democracies’ pandemic planning but came to be seen as an inevitability after Beijing pursued it. China, in the words of Prof Neil Ferguson, “changed people’s sense of what is possible in terms of control”.
Now, we may be about to witness its sheer force once again. For many, Boris Johnson’s decision to postpone freedom day to mid-july will seem like a commonsensical measure if the time is used to accelerate vaccinations. But I fear it is much more significant. Will this really turn out to be a minor delay on the long road to freedom? Or will it instead prove to be the first step down a dangerous path that ends with lockdown restrictions continuing in some fashion indefinitely?
Consider the basic principle that the Prime Minister has conceded: vaccination of the vulnerable is not a sufficient condition for reopening society. In effect, the Government seems to be saying, lockdown can only end once the link between cases and hospitalisations has not just been weakened but severed. We need herd immunity to go back to normal.
But vaccines may never fully break the link between cases and hospitalisations. Fast forward a couple of months, when the jab has been offered to every adult, and we may still be seeing significant localised surges in hospital numbers. Experts think that the evolution of more contagious variants also means that the percentage of the population who need some form of antibody protection to secure herd immunity may have risen – from achievable (60 per cent) to borderline unrealistic (80-95 per cent).
Mr Johnson might only want a brief pause until we can all learn to live with the virus. But the logic of his failure to take the leap now is that restrictions could continue until we reach what may prove to be an entirely unrealistic goal. This flirts perilously with an acceptance that restrictions may have to go on forever.
I don’t envy the Prime Minister. I am sure that he wants to return our freedoms. But he is under tremendous pressure to bow to experts, whom the broadcast media treat as objective oracles of truth rather than purveyors of narrow judgment. Much of the public has been conditioned into a permanent state of Covid fear, a fact for which the Government must take partial responsibility. It has failed to communicate lucidly that the way out of lockdown is to roll out the vaccine and then accept the virus as another manageable risk among many.
Mr Johnson’s allies argue that the PM wants to avoid at all costs forging ahead now only to reverse the lifting of measures. Yet, in his dithering and pathological avoidance of confrontation, he resembles nobody so much as Theresa May. On Brexit, Mrs May was undone by the catastrophic concession to “sequence” EU talks, which trapped her in a doom-loop of endless capitulations. Mr Johnson may struggle to recover from surrendering on the idea that lockdown cannot end until Covid is effectively defeated.
There is still time for Mr Johnson to regain control. Lifting lockdown in July, while levelling with people that many people will still die in the coming years, could save him and the country. But if he cannot, the great danger is that Britain will stumble into a Zero Covid strategy in desperate pursuit of herd immunity. A nasty ethical row on child vaccination is already looming, with experts warning that Britain must inoculate young people to gain a true grip on the virus. So too an ugly public debate about whether imposing restrictions on the unvaccinated could drive down hesitancy rates.
Just suppose we endure these controversies and do restrict people’s liberties further. Having taken things so far, society will want to protect its gains. It won’t seem such a great leap to keep restrictions in place in a bid to drive down cases even further. Social distancing will carry on as hospitality businesses adapt or die. The young will no longer look forward to nightclubs, but look back on them as a bygone hedonism, like ballroom dances before the Second World War. With the developed world unlikely to ever reach herd immunity, foreign tourism beyond Europe and America will be effectively abolished.
Such a picture may seem extreme. In Britain, we tend to believe that moderation will always prevail. Yet, in crises, it tends to be ideologues rather than pragmatists who gain momentum. Mr Johnson has for months been locked in a vicious cycle of seeking a middle ground, before relenting to those who favour extreme caution.
The PM does not seem to fully appreciate that he is increasingly fighting not just a pandemic, but an ideology. This is not simply a case of a few overzealous modellers. The interests of the two most powerful movements of the moment, environmentalism and global health, are converging. Eco-warriors have attracted attention for unapologetically eyeing the collapse in aviation as an opportunity. Less appreciated is the fact that infectious disease specialists have been warning against the dangers of capitalism and mass travel even longer. The window of opportunity to challenge their drastic, deglobalising remedies is closing. Even if the Prime Minister wanted to, with so many citizens terrified, and a middle-class zoomocracy facing few risks to its material comfort, he will struggle to mount a challenge later down the line.
This week, Britain badly needed the Prime Minister to show conviction. It needed No 10 to shift from the “precautionary principle”, to the “slippery slope principle” which recognises that small decisions can unleash an unstoppable spiral of events. This has not happened. We can now only wait to see the consequences – and whether the most important moment of Mr Johnson’s prime ministership has just come and gone.