Here’s a disquieting thought for anti-lockdown columnists. We all know that, if Boris Johnson were still one of us, he would be writing what we are writing. But have you considered that, precisely for that reason, the reverse might also be true? That, if one of us were PM, we would be doing as he is doing? I loathe the lockdown. Before the first one was declared, I wrote in this column that restrictions would be easier to decree than to repeal and that, once we spun open the spending spigots, we would struggle to screw them shut again. Nothing that has happened since has changed my mind. Indeed, we now know that the peak in new infections had happened before the closures were imposed – both times.
But let’s keep a sense of perspective, for heaven’s sake. Britain is not about to go into a “new lockdown”. On Wednesday, the most onerous restrictions will be lifted, finally and definitively. Shops and businesses will reopen in even the most restricted regions. Bells will ring out again from our yew-hemmed churches. The shrieks of children playing team sports will once more carry on the frosty air.
How odd that Conservative MPs who went along with far more restrictive measures should pick this moment to mutter mutinously. How bizarre that newspapers which demanded tougher restrictions in March should be so suddenly strident the other way.
Or perhaps it’s not so bizarre. Perhaps we have hit what marathon-runners call “the wall”: that moment, around 20 miles into the course, when the stored energy in our muscles runs out, forcing us to a walk. The end is in sight, but our accumulated exhaustion weighs us down.
For all that, though, much of the anger is misdirected. The idea that Boris, of all people, is getting some sort of authoritarian kick out of this wretched situation is too silly for words. I have known the PM for 25 years. If I had to summarise his political convictions in vexillological form, it would be as one of those American revolutionary flags with a rattlesnake and the caption “Don’t tread on me”. His Telegraph columns, his speeches, his parliamentary votes – all seethe with a good-natured dislike of nannying and bossiness.
So why, ask restive Tories, are we where we are? Part of the answer is that they – we – are a minority. Most people want the restrictions tightened, not loosened. One of the grimmest aspects of this awful situation is that it has made Britain more illiberal. Around two thirds of the electorate want the toughest possible crackdown. It doesn’t much matter how the question is phrased – close pubs, ground planes, cancel exams, impose curfews. Yes, that figure has fallen slightly since the first lockdown, when it was closer to 90 per cent. But let’s not kid ourselves. Flights are taking off and cafés are reopening in the teeth of public opposition.
Who should we credit for this liberalisation? Sage, which doesn’t like the idea of boardgames? Or the PM, who wants to shift tiers downwards?
For MPs to blame Boris for the lockdown is like Kevin the Teenager blaming every misfortune on his parents. Imagine for a moment that you were in No 10. Your advisers want to keep the country under house arrest. The media stubbornly refuse to recognise the difference between preventable deaths and deaths per se. Opposition parties clamour for tighter restrictions – and, in the parts of the UK that they run, apply them. The healthcare system is weaker than many of its European rivals, but no one is prepared to admit it. Every fatality is deemed to be your fault.
Few voters are worried about rising unemployment or falling living standards. Many of them imagine that “the economy” is some sort of ATM-machine for the rich, rather than the name we give to the voluntary transactions through which people improve their lives. Lockdown junkies snatch at the intellectually empty but emotionally powerful notion of the precautionary principle. (“Can you be certain that long Covid won’t be serious?” Nope. I can’t be certain that the country won’t be overrun by killer hornets, either. No one can prove a negative.)
Despite all these pressures, Boris is shouldering the door open. He has defeated the teaching unions’ attempt to keep schools shut. Unlike in the devolved regions, next year’s exams are on track. Gyms, hairdressers, airports – all are back in business. I know this is thin consolation to people who run pubs, many of whom were having a hard enough time before the coronavirus. Still, look across the Channel. Germany has closed all bars and restaurants until December 20. France has closed them until January 20 and is about to impose a curfew – as are Italy and Spain.
Yes, the new tiers were a shock. My corner of Hampshire, like most of southern England, is subject to harsher restrictions despite having fewer cases. We look enviously across the Solent, longing for Wight Privilege.
But there is no point in moaning. Having lost the lockdown argument, we should focus on immediately achievable goals. How can we accelerate full liberalisation? For example, quick tests might allow us to reopen venues with limited entry points. Theatres could screen audiences on their way in. Airports could test travellers at the door, allowing terminals and flights to be mask-free.
What about schools and universities? If we prioritised vaccination for their staff, surely students could enjoy a normal experience as early as next term: no masks, contact sports, drama, the works.
Those of us who argued that we should shield the vulnerable, rather than confining the entire country, were told that it was impossible because of multi-generational households and the general seepage of the virus across populations. Whether or not that was true then, it is plainly possible now to shield the vulnerable through selective vaccination.
The restoration of normality for the groups least at risk should happen in parallel with the roll-out. There is no need to wait for the majority of the population to be covered. In other words, we should realistically aim to start unlocking things in January. I know that ministers don’t want to repeat the mistake of being over-optimistic, and it is always better to come in ahead of expectations, but I’d be astonished if we need to wait until Easter before things feel normal.
Is this really the moment to go wobbly? When, after so much ghastliness, liberation is just around the corner? Who would lead us there more quickly? Keir Starmer? Nicola Sturgeon? You only have to put the question.