In each case the strain on hospitals was cited, with elective surgeries in Northern Ireland cancelled and Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford revealing critical care units in Wales are operating at capacity. Belfast’s decision to go into lockdown last week was swiftly followed this week by Dublin, with the Irish government instituting a five-kilometre travel limit and fines in its second lockdown of the year.
Should these measures prove effective in driving down numbers and giving governments some control over the disease, pressure on Mr Johnson to follow suit may become overwhelming. But beyond the obvious desire to limit the pandemic’s economic impact, Mr Johnson and Mr Macron have struggled for another reason: weak levels of trust in government.
At the pandemic’s outset, governments around the world found their publics flocking back to them as a source of stability and authority in a highly uncertain situation. In Australia, the decision to institute a national cabinet and the early determination of state and federal leaders to dispense with adversarial politics were met with strong voter approval in polling.
But as questions have arisen over how best to handle outbreaks, old divisions have reared their heads. In France, the divide between the official class and working people has resurfaced just as Mr Macron’s party political base seems to be crumbling. Mr Johnson – whose Conservative Party made unprecedented gains in northern England at the 2019 general election – stands accused of abandoning his new supporters and favouring the party’s southern strongholds as Liverpool is locked down and Manchester is pushed to follow suit.
Announcing his country’s latest lockdown, Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin raised a spectre few politicians have dared to: that periodic closures could be here to stay. “We work to suppress the virus when it is growing, and we work to reopen as much of our society and economy as possible when it is safe to do so. Until we have a safe vaccine, we must continue in that pattern,” he said.
The questions of how suppression and reopening should work must always be addressed as transparently as possible, as the conduct of hotel quarantine in this state has already dealt a blow to trust that could and should have been avoided. But those who seek to create an opposition between individual liberty and our collective responsibility to one another should beware of the far graver consequences that could result.
Our politicians need to make sure that debates about how best to handle what comes next avoid a descent into traditional partisanship and that the word freedom is not used as a political bludgeon when talking about restrictions, as has been the case in the United States with such disastrous effects. The more the public sees politicians bickering and attacking one another, the less likely they are to heed those same politicians should another crisis arise.
Note from the Editor
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