The Daily Telegraph
A betrayal of the British public
It was meant to be Freedom Day. On June 21, the last restrictions would fall, an unprecedented experiment in social control would end, and the Government would concede that it had no justification for using the full force of the law to regulate the lives of the public in order to contain a pandemic that vaccinations had begun to tame. For a time, it appeared as if hope would triumph over experience. Despite the Government’s baleful record of moving the goalposts, the Prime Minister had been making optimistic noises about the data. The reopening of schools, pubs and shops took place without an overwhelming surge in infections. Hospitalisations and deaths from Covid were at low levels. The R number rose, as would be expected given the resumption of some social contact, but it seemed clear that positive test numbers in themselves were little to worry about thanks to the vaccination of the vulnerable.
In the end, however, Boris Johnson’s commitment to freedom could not survive a backlash from a risk-averse scientific-technocratic class that has never appreciated lockdown’s costs. The rise of the Delta/indian variant gave licence to officials to revive their irresponsible campaign of fear. First, warnings about the effects of variants convinced the Government to go backwards on foreign travel, with suggestions from ministers that limiting our freedom to go abroad would protect freedom at home. Now even the return of freedom at home is being sacrificed, to what is being described as a sensible delay.
Is it only a delay? At his Downing Street press conference last night, the Prime Minister was at pains to emphasise that it is only a temporary pause of four weeks to enable more people to be vaccinated. The Government portrays its decision as a pragmatic postponement, not a cancellation, and one that will be of no lasting significance.
But it is much more significant than that. It is a betrayal of thousands of companies, already driven to the edge of ruin by lockdown and socialdistancing, who have spent significant sums of money in preparation for a full reopening on June 21. Ministers might say that their mantra all along has been “data, not dates”. However, has anyone in Government bothered to calculate how many companies will be bankrupted by weeks of extra restrictions? It is a betrayal of the public, many of whom have only been able to endure the past few months because of the firm knowledge that an end was in sight. They have embraced vaccination, believing that it would be used to reopen. Instead, they find themselves under tighter restrictions than this time last year, when there was no jab.
Above all, it is a betrayal of Conservative principles. Freedom is being treated not as the inalienable right of every individual, to be curtailed only in the most extreme of emergencies, but as conditional – to be disregarded whenever it is convenient to the Government.
The case for the state continuing 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 must live with, possibly indefinitely. The point of the vaccination campaign was not to eliminate the risk, but to lower it to manageable levels, which has arguably been done. It may be impossible to sever the link between cases and hospitalisations completely.
In any case, will the situation really be much different in four weeks’ time? Yes, more people might have the full protection of the jab. But there will remain a proportion who will not have been afforded its protection and perhaps never will be. Positive test numbers may even be higher by mid-july. If the Government remains concerned about the risk of the NHS being overwhelmed, especially now that it has to deal with the noncovid backlog, it is extraordinary that so little effort appears to have been made to boost capacity. If we are truly in a race between variants and the jabs, why has the vaccination programme not been massively accelerated?
The Government may claim that it is merely following the science. Yet this could well turn out to be a defining moment in the Prime Minister’s political career – when he missed his opportunity to liberate the country from Covid restrictions, and end the unseemly bartering over our freedoms. Already the outlines of a longer-term architecture of control are beginning to emerge, with calls for some social distancing to stay permanently. Will it ever be judged “safe” to return to normal?
In an ideal world, Parliament would vote down this unnecessary extension to lockdown. Shamefully, however, only a handful of Tory backbenchers could be counted upon to oppose it. The Government faces no real opposition from the Labour Party, which has predictably fallen into line behind the delay, seeing it only as a reason to spend more money. Millions of people, particularly those who enjoy the benefits of working from home, appear to be content to remain in a state of semi-hibernation. The Prime Minister is popular, still enjoying the after-effects of the Tory victory in the Hartlepool by-election.
The history books may not be so kind. Unless the remaining restrictions are lifted by July 19 at the latest, Boris Johnson risks being remembered not only as the prime minister who took away our freedoms, but who was unwilling to give them back. Does he have the courage to avoid that fate?