*Disclaimer – This is an Opinion Piece which solely reflects the writer’s personal opinions. The government’s COVID-19 lockdown rules still need to be followed accordingly. To find out what those are in your area and how they affect you, please follow the link to the Government website: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/national-lockdown-stay-at-home *
By Nathan Honest and Jaeben Watkinson
In January 2020, a strange new respiratory virus emerged in the city of Wuhan, China. Twelve months later, Britain is under lockdown! Legally enforced restrictions governing where we go, who we meet and how we shop. Laws that would have seemed outlandishly authoritarian a year ago, are now almost Python-esque in their absurdity and are now an everyday reality for millions of people across the UK. Pubs, bars, clubs, non-essential shops, museums, galleries and zoos: you name it, it’s probably shut. It is now illegal to visit your neighbours, meet more than one friend; even outdoors in a public area. It is not illegal to meet one friend outdoors for a coffee, but that didn’t stop Derbyshire Police attempting to fine two young women who drove to a local nature reserve to do just that. The police attempted to justify their actions by claiming the young women were not acting “in the spirit” of the law, an argument that surely wouldn’t succeed in court. Whilst the government breaks international law “in a specific and limited way” for the sake of international trade, ordinary citizens are being punished for being normal human beings and doing normal things, unless you happen to be a special advisor to the government of course.
Has it worked? Of course it has! Just like SAGE promised, ten months of following the rules, clapping for the NHS, and keeping our distance have almost eliminated coronavirus, with new cases dropping to a manageable le-
Wait a minute…they haven’t? Well, I never.
Despite the fact that deaths and hospitalisations now far exceed the peak in April 2020, when most infections were caught in the period before a lockdown was even proposed, the standard answer to any coronavirus-related question is lockdown, lockdown, lockdown. Staggeringly, public support for tightening measures remains high, even though some evidence suggests that closing hospitality venues and non-essential retail has had very little impact on the spread of the virus, all whilst causing enormous damage to the economy and people’s mental health. A study conducted by Public Health England concluded that only 5% of infections can be traced back to hospitality venues, a broad definition that includes pubs, hotels, museums, galleries, and other visitor attractions, many of which have lost money at an alarming rate and face the threat of permanent closure.
This leads to a wider point: whether or not you believe lockdowns are working, are they truly worth the incredible cost? Losing these venues would be a truly incalculable loss to our social and cultural heritage. In 2019, pubs were closing at the rate of one every twelve hours, long before the virus took hold. In many smaller towns and villages, pubs represent the heart of the community, providing a space not just to eat and drink, but also to bring people together. Furthermore, they are a crucial provider of employment, especially for the younger generation. Losing entertainment venues threatens to be even more tragic: imagine a future where experiences such as live music and live theatre are reserved for a privileged few. Not to mention that the tens of thousands of deaths caused directly and indirectly from lockdown may outweigh the number of lives that could be saved by the restrictions.
SAGE estimated 75,000 Covid-related deaths as a consequence of lockdowns in 2020, due to missed appointments, problems in social care, as well as the economic and mental health impact. If 2021 turns out to be not so different from 2020, that could mean nearly 150,000 deaths from lockdown alone by the end of the decade. Is it possible that a middle ground could be found, that balances the need to protect the NHS whilst also preventing an epidemic of mental health problems and spiralling job losses?
The most terrifying aspect of this pandemic, however, is that it has exposed just how easy it is to turn a liberal democracy into a bona fide authoritarian state. This is not a transformation that can be achieved through the mechanisms of government alone; it requires a significant degree of popular support. As any would-be dictator will know, there is only one way to gain unquestioning loyalty and obedience: fear. If people feel threatened, then they will accept anything that promises to deliver them from that threat. The scientists of SAGE, and indeed much of the cabinet, have knowingly exploited this without consideration for the potential future implications. Consider this: is it really normal that people switch on the TV and let a bumbling, foppish Old Etonian tell them whether they can leave their homes? What kind of precedent does that set? What if a future Prime Minister used this power not because they were misguided and incompetent, but because they were evil? What if the “public health threat” came not from a virus, but their political opponents?
These are important questions; and yet, aside from conspiracy theorists and a small group of questionable Tory MPs, nobody is asking them. Indeed, the government has been so good at creating a fear-based narrative that if you dare question the Covid orthodoxy, people look at you like you’ve just thrown stray puppies in a skip. “Granny-killers”, “dangerous”; “in denial”: these are just some of the slurs brandished against public figures who have put their heads above the parapet and come out against harsh restrictions. SAGE and their Tory enablers have created a monstrous epidemiological dictatorship, where not only must the population obey the rules, even the mere act of questioning them is viewed as socially unacceptable.
Neither of us denies the virus exists. Nor do we believe that it is an evil plot orchestrated by lizard-people. We don’t want to see the virus completely run riot and kill thousands of people, and this article should not be taken as an encouragement to recklessly break the rules. But the brutal truth is that Covid is here, and it is here to stay. With such a high prevalence within the community, elimination is functionally impossible. People will catch Covid and even die from it, in 5, 10, 20, even 50 years from now. We, of course, want to do everything we can to save lives. But what is life, but the people you meet, the places you go, and the memories you make? Life is tenderly holding your grandmother’s hand as she tells you a story about her childhood. Life is hugging your friends in elation after a long time apart. Life is meeting your future spouse in a crowded shopping centre. Life is having a picnic and watching the sun go down over the horizon. Life is schools, universities, hotels, pubs, clubs, zoos, garden centres, and museums. Life is friends, family, acquaintances, awkward co-workers, that one cute guy who smiled at you once in the library. Life is kisses, hugs, handshakes.
Life is beautiful, and life is freedom.
By that measure, the government haven’t saved lives at all. They’ve made life illegal. The question is, Will the history books will condemn them for their folly?
Cover Image Credit: The Financial Times https://www.ft.com/content/77a1e3b6-3864-4a24-88af-df19fd22f235