Emily Carver is Media Manager at the Institute of Economic Affairs
There are people in this country who would be quite happy to continue with the current restrictions on our lives – social distancing, mask wearing and the closure of sectors of our economy – in perpetuity.
For anyone in doubt, a recent media interview revealed this quite plainly to be the case. Dr Richard Taylor, former independent MP, now Co-Leader of the National Health Action Party, said that his preference was for the lockdown to “continue indefinitely”. By his own admission, the reason he is so relaxed about the societal and economic damage this would reap is because he is “extremely selfish” and quite happy with his own “self-contained life”. Suffice to say, I was gobsmacked.
You might say, well he’s clearly a public health zealot and that at least he was honest. But he’s certainly not alone in this view. It’s not a conspiracy that leading advisers to our government have become so tunnel-visioned in their approach to public health that their aim now appears to be to eliminate all risk – at least from this one threat – at any cost.
Professor Susan Michie, a member of the Communist Party of Britain and SAGE scientist who openly endorses a “zero Covid” strategy, revealed on Channel 5 News that she believes social distancing, including mask wearing, should continue not only into the long-term but forever.
It is terrifying and depressing in equal measure to think that such extreme views may be reflected in the Government’s current strategy. Now, as we face an indefinite delay to the Government’s roadmap out of lockdown, it appears as if all cost-benefit analyses on restrictions have been thrown out in favour of a strategy to avoid Covid deaths at all costs, without even a pretence of parliamentary scrutiny.
More worrying for the culture of this country, is that it’s not just public health enthusiasts and risk averse bureaucrats who seem to adhere to this way of thinking. A YouGov snap poll yesterday found that 71 per cent of English people support the delay, with 41 per cent saying they “strongly” support it. According to the survey, only 24 per cent of those living in England oppose the delay, with 14 per cent saying they “strongly” oppose the decision.
Even if we allow for a large margin of error, it’s clear that most people in this country remain on board with the Government’s lockdown experiment – even 15 months after we were told “three weeks to flatten the curve”. But is this that surprising considering the UK government and Public Health England spent nearly £300 million last year on ad campaigns to frighten the public into submission?
We continue to hear the same old refrain from parts of the establishment media. What’s another two to four weeks of delay? Surely, if we’re cautious now, we can avoid another full lockdown? And the dreaded “save one life” fallacy: restrictions are worth it if they save one life, right?
It’s interesting how this consensus is dominated by those little impacted by the restrictions still in place. Could it be that those in secure public sector jobs, those still working from the comfort of their homes or on furlough, or those who don’t particularly enjoy a trip to a night club haven’t really noticed a difference in their quality of life and are therefore quite happy to take the moral high ground now?
Over the course of the pandemic, I’ve thought it wise to resist engaging in intergenerational warfare over Covid, not least because it has been the elderly who have fallen victim to this disease.
However, with the upper age groups and the most vulnerable near fully vaccinated, it is unjustifiable for restrictions to remain on the young, the vast majority of whom have given up their freedoms despite being at little risk of harm. Ironically, it may be that the elderly take back their freedoms first, with certain activities closed to the not yet doubled-jabbed.
But with 81 per cent of over 65s saying they either “strongly support” or “somewhat support” the delay, Boris Johnson is under little to pressure to change tack. It’s highly likely he’ll continue to outsource responsibility for our pandemic policy to his narrow clique of scientific advisers.
And it’s not just because young people are selfish that they are more likely to oppose the continuation of these measures. If you look at the latest labour market figures, it is those under 25 who saw the largest fall in pay-rolled employment in May, despite overall unemployment remaining better than expected.
It is true that older people have also been badly impacted by redundancies and job losses, and young people may, on the whole, be able to bounce back faster. However, many young people have found themselves trapped in a state of adolescent dependency far longer than is healthy since the start of the pandemic, unable to find the kind of jobs in hospitality, events and the arts where they would have previously found employment. This hiatus could even lead to a permanent loss of income over the course of a career, as several economists have predicted. No furlough scheme or income support can replace real-life work experience.
This long-term damage is mere collateral in the Government’s stubbornly cautious approach to unlocking. We were told by Matt Hancock that restrictions would end once the most vulnerable had been vaccinated. This week, the Prime Minister said that the four-week delay was to give the NHS extra time to jab two thirds of the adult population.
Many have scoffed at the idea that it will be a fight to regain our freedoms. But if even vaccinating the most vulnerable won’t allow us to get back to life as normal, it’s hard to see the Government and SAGE loosening their grip any time soon.