Lockdown breakdown

Approaching Freedom Day, I looked around at how the nation is reacting in different places. We thought the nation was divided over Brexit, but Maskxit…

In London, the original plague-pit of COVID-19, masks are a rare, exotic fashion accessory. Shops still insist, but wearing one in the street draws a double-take. On the Tube the full force of law demands that all travellers be muzzled, but I have seen journeys where only a minority are. The young and fit frequently do not bother, and they must know that if they get it they are barely at risk. The double-jabbed (as I am) should not have to worry, but the law still insists, and if one is to be a pillar of the community one is expected to look like a pillock in the community. As soon as the crowd though crushes together through the exit, the masks are ripped off in disgust.

One observation: amongst those of East Asian extraction, masks are more commonly worn on the street – maybe more amongst those visiting from those plague-ridden lands who are in the habit.

In other towns there is no observable pattern, other than to see that lockdown is breaking down and has been for some time, not just in anticipation of Freedom Day. The vulnerable elderly are more likely to be in masks, even though presumably they have been jabbed, and it is one-use surgical masks as the muzzle of choice. (Cambridge I found works by a different rhythm: you see more masks on the street, worn apparently for virtue-signalling, or a political statement. You can tell the type.)

Shops are a mixture. Some do the bare minimum on masks and things: they know it has all got a bit silly. Some are all so uptight and demanding on muzzles, tracking, one-way systems and that goo that causes your hands to come out in blotches, that you wonder if they actually want customers. Some pubs will allow no one through threshold unless they have the government’s spy-app (so I go elsewhere). On the other side, in plenty of shops and pubs no one wears a mask, so it would be impolite to do so myself: it would look as if I were silently judging everyone who goes bare-faced.

Monday approaches; Freedom Day. However it is far from back to normal. The lamentable Mayor of London is insisting on masks on London Underground for as long as the virus is with us – but since it is now endemic in the population, that will be forever. He may find his rule impossible to enforce: even when the rule is law, it is commonly flouted. Several venues public and private up and down the land have announced that face-nappies must still be worn, without an end date. (What are they worried about? They can’t be prosecuted or blamed.)

Self-isolation is to remain too, and they are not even allowing the partial exemption for the fully vaccinated until August (and that exemption will be limited even so). It is particularly poor timing that Sajid Javid has just been tested positive with a snuffle: it has fuelled demands for eternal lockdown. Well, if the disease has still been spreading in spite of the lockdown, it’s not going to help to do it again.

It comes down to the analysis Fay wrote at the beginning: the nation is divided into the terrified the fed up and the bullies. The bullies are certainly in the ascendant at the moment.

It is a stifled cheer then for Freedom Day on Monday, but a look forward to genuine freedom when the unofficial lockdown breaks down entirely.

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Yearning to be unfree

Millions begging not to have their freedom: a strange sight yet perhaps expected. It was once a shock to find the nation bowing so quietly to the lockdown restrictions, and now they are to be lifted, many want to hide. Be comforted that a sizable majority will cast off the hated masks with joy, but others are showing positive anger at freedom. That is a new thing for a nation that used to breathe freedom with the air.

Unfreedom is comforting. It is a reversion to childhood, looked after by Mummy and Daddy with barely a care. The wide world where we take responsibility and bear the consequences is frightening.

The harsh reality of all human existence, and all animal existence, is that we must eat or die, and the further away we can get from that reality, the better we feel. Those who have lounged at home, fed by those of us still working and paying taxes, will not want to go back to the work-or-starve world. Those who have been working through it all may have the comfort of a steady salary and can be purely mechanical. It is thought and challenge that are frightening. Freedom is frightening, if you are incapable of running with it.

The grandiose rhetoric of politics talks of freedom in terms of speech, association, due process and those familiar tropes, but these barely impinge on everyday life for most of us – in the everyday, freedom is getting up when we feel, choosing our breakfast, turning left instead of right out of our front door, taking our own car for a spin for no reason, randomly stopping at a cake shop: spontaneity without needing a reason. All this was forbidden.

It is easier, being directed. We have missed holidays, but have been relieved of the pain of having to organise the holiday; those who used to go to a club or an evening classes may miss them, but they no longer have to shift themselves in time for it and lose an evening; those who organise community events have been delighted not to have to for over a year. We may find that all those pastimes we used to enjoy actually we enjoy missing more. We do not want to but gloriously the decision has been taken out of our hands.

An industrial, office-bound world then is readier to accept control by others. These locked-down years with their petty regulations and endless excuses to wag fingers at the non-conforming has been comforting, as for a helpless child who just has to follow all his loving parents say.

It is ending now, and we have to stand on our own feet. No wonder there is resistance. There is resentment too, of those who will exercise their freedom, growing (in the letters page of the local paper and comments columns on the BBC) into anger that some people just will not do what they are asked to do. The nation divides again, as we did over Brexit: it will be interesting to see if there is a correlation between attitudes to the national freedom and attitudes to personal freedom.

There are psychological studies to be done on this phenomenon in future generations.

On Monday, all being well, we will be free again. We will still have busybodies urging us to stop breathing and hide behind useless masks in case, just in case…, but we will free to make our own choice to refuse.

If in the meantime much of the nation has been shown to be like sheep, we are all poorer for it. For the rest of us, there is work to be done, to create wealth and prosperity in these islands by competition for endeavour; to lead and command. If those around are sheep, they should not be surprised to find that I and others are wolves.

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Reading between the worry lines

Delay unnecessary, unwanted delay. Polls suggest it is popular, but the effects will not be. Data demands a full opening up, to end the Lockdown, but it is not to be, at least not completely.

Why, we can guess. It is not following the data, but avoiding the blame in the unlikely event that anything goes wrong. It is not running a country by running scared.

A loud battle has been fought this month by rival press releases from lockers and from openers. It is blatant. The headline writers love it: an obscure medic somewhere wanting publicity can make dire predictions and be plastered over the front pages under a headline along the lines “Government must keep lockdown forever or millions will die”; the sort of hysterics that made the Remainiacs so laughable in previous years, and just as accurate. Then it is snapped back by someone facing bankruptcy unless his business is permitted to allow customers back in, and each story phrased as if it were an official announcement.

There is no sense to it any more. If before the first lockdown the figures for infections and hospitalisations had been those we are seeing today, then idea of locking us up and closing businesses would have seemed madness, for such a petty outbreak.

We are being shown today charts with a dotted line climbing and the question “if this rate continues…”, but it cannot continue, as the medical profession well knows, because the population has reached herd immunity, through vaccination and infection. The climbing figures will be found to be amongst those who have refused vaccination, who happen to be from the same cultural community most directly in touch with the Indian variant. That is a limited pool. They should be cared for and isolated as individuals. They are not going to take us back to the height of the epidemic though.

There is still an opportunity to rescue the nation from the damage of a delayed opening. They could just drop the whole nonsense and open up on 21 June as planned. They could leave a local lockdown in place in the most affected areas. They could remove most of the restrictions on Monday, and leave a few that they are most reluctant to let go. They could exempt from all rules those who have been double-vaccinated.

Continuing restrictions will be largely ineffective anyway, as we will largely ignore them. In the meantime as it drags into the holiday season, seasonal businesses (which make a profit only in July and August) will collapse, unnecessarily and all because of a minister’s cowardice.

The motive for continued restriction is not of principle nor science, but fear of personal criticism. That is a corrupt way to govern.

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Spinning doctors

Lord Salisbury comes to mind:

No lesson seems to be so deeply inculcated by the experience of life as that you should never trust experts. If you believe doctors, nothing is wholesome: if you believe the theologians, nothing is innocent: if you believe the soldiers, nothing is safe.

The partial opening-up this morning is celebrated in all quarters, except by a handful of high-up doctors and of non-teaching teachers. There are voices still piping up, demanding a halt to the liberating progress to end the lockdown. The practical end of the epidemic is a tribute to the medical profession, but it also means an end to their unaccustomed power.

Never before have doctors been able to command instant attention, and never before have a well-placed set of medics been able to control every movement, our rising up, our going forth and our laying us down again, of the whole population. Now ‘doctor’s orders’ sounds sinister. Telling an individual to have more sleep, take more exercise and avoid chocolate is about the best a doctor can hope for in normal days, and then with little hope of his obedience. Now though in the right place a word from a doctor may command a whole nation, and command policemen to seize those who do not obey doctor’s orders. It must be glorious.

Also, in a publicity hungry culture, doctors alone have to be silent about their good work (unless one can convince a local newspaper that he is worthy to be a pillar of society and a column in the Gazette). Now, a single doctor with a scientific version of ‘The End of the World is Nigh’ can command a rapt audience.

It is just a handful. Most doctors have been working silently, making the nation better, which is what they do well (if their receptionist lets anyone in to be cured), receiving the due thanks of those they heal. It is the handful though who make the noise and steer the ship of state off course.

All that is coming to an end. We will be well again, and doctors must subside to the normal, hidden layer (where most have resided diligently throughout). They must also go back to work. Their Cerberus-like receptionists too will have to buckle down and let patients through the door at last. They will hate it.

We can be cynical about the hold-out doctors, still saying it is unsafe, hazardous, murderous to return to normal. Lord Salisbury had their measure. They are to be ignored.

That perhaps our greatest of Conservative Prime Ministers has an appropriate quote tells us that things have not changed, deep down, from his day. I may have to theme more posts on his aphorisms.

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Half a cheer for vaccine passports

I could write to curse the idea as discriminatory and a shackle of servitude; or I could praise vaccine passports as a route to freedom. I could instead say both, but do not let the government machine anywhere near them. There is a better way.

It has been said by many commentators that a vaccine passport scheme would be divisive and discriminatory. It would indeed treat people who have not had the jab differently from those who have, but that is not much of an objection: if it liberates millions, let them be liberated. Some people have eyesight too bad to let them drive, but we do not ban cars for everyone in the name of equality. If a scheme reopens businesses on the brink of bankruptcy, let us do everything to let them reopen.

Those who are immune are at no risk and are no danger to anyone. At the beginning of this epidemic, I pleaded for those who had been through the disease to be given their freedom back – and not just for themselves but to let the economy come back on line. Those ‘immunity passports’ were discussed but it came to naught. Now the epidemic is practically over in the United Kingdom, because of the immunisation programme, and new infections from Europe and America will hit that wall of herd immunity. We should be fully opening soon.

Even so, the fear is still there, of crowded venues, hot with breath in our faces, the few yet diseased spreading to those still vulnerable, who cannot escape. The trains into London are still emptied by fear and no one will sit next to anyone else – they stand, in half-empty carriages. What will they be like in pubs and cinemas?

If customers are to have confidence to return and spend money in pubs, clubs and theatres, they want assurance. These are the vaccine passports.

The pubs and venues are the ones who need a scheme to keep their customers safe; not the government. Nothing the government does depends on it. However in this emergency the government has taken control of every aspect of life, and death. They feel responsible and the legion of advisers (if they were more honest) enjoy the power. The politicians, bureaucrats and newly empowered doctors now need to step back. It is not their fight. The government’s job in this is to take their hands off and open us up as fast as possible. If they demand that pubs be closed to those still at risk, let the pubs determine the question. They will do it better.

If the Civil Service get hold of a vaccine passport system, they will mire it in bureaucracy, and give a lucrative monopoly to a company with the slickest PR department. That company then has a financial interest in making it as complicated and expensive as possible and of staving off the end of lockdown, without actually achieving the objective. The lockdown has been manna from heaven for leech companies. The American government, remember, spent an eye-watering $1 billion on a probe, and it got to Mars; the British government spent eleven times the amount on Track and Trace and it didn’t get off the ground.

The pubs however know what they need to get customers through the door. It does not need a nationwide, intrusive database, it does not need to follow you round the country and it does not need a heavy, laminated and bound document set to last years: the longest it would ever be needed is a couple of months until the last of the lockdown is sloughed off. It just needs a simple card with a bar code or QR code for the user’s name and likeness and confirmation that they have had the jab, certified by the existing database. A single, spotty geek fresh out of an IT course could programme that, and for barely more than the cost of a pint. Breweries and theatres and airlines could do their own or join together for one they can all accept. All there is to say to Matt Hancock is ‘get away and stay away’.

Some dangers with vaccination passports have been well rehearsed. For me, the worst are twofold. The first is that the government will take ownership of the scheme and effectively persecute those who (for whatever reason) will not have the vaccination. The second is more sinister: that if the scheme is successful, allowing the vaccinated to crowd into sports grounds, pubs and theatres, that may be an excuse to prolong the lockdown for the rest. Indeed if a really expensive, bureaucratic scheme were adopted, the lockdown would have to be extended just to justify the expense and effort.

Overall – no – Matt Hancock’s Department must not even contemplate a vaccine passport scheme. However if the venues want one, as well they might, they will do it far better than a bureaucracy ever could.

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