SINCE THE LAST SOURCE DIRECT, the pandemic has sent Britain on an emotional rollercoaster. On the one hand, new vaccine approvals raised hopes of a quicker return to normality. On the other hand, the new, more infectious strain emerging in the UK – Trump might have called it the “British flu” – has seen a precipitous rise in infections, beyond even what we anticipated for Christmas.
Today, England and Scotland re-enter lockdown, similar to March last year, with schools closed until February and people in mainland Scotland told to stay at home except for essential business.
The First Minister has said she is “more concerned about the situation we face now than I have been at any time since March last year”. Few will disagree, and most will respect the gravity of the circumstances and follow the rules.
That said, the crisis continues to show the whole British political class in a poor light. Mixed messages over school returns was the latest fiasco in a year that has seen one bungle after another. There was prevarication over lockdown; the botched procurement of PPE; the decanting of sick elderly people from hospitals to care homes; the exams debacle; and that “world beating” test and trace system. Then came Christmas, and things, once again, got out of hand.
One revelation of the pandemic is how willingly people have respected the rules. While there have been highly publicised “covidiots”, there has been surprisingly little evidence of the stereotypical British libertarianism. Indeed, this is one thing Boris Johnson (and, in America, Trump) badly miscalculated. People respect authoritative leadership and clear guidance rather than trusting to “plain common sense”. Christmas restrictions were ultimately accepted, which would have been unthinkable not long ago.
However, persistent incompetence and rising distrust will eventually wear people down. Most find it impossible to keep up with messages that change daily. This becomes especially acute when considering school closures, which impose chaos on working families’ routines.
Lockdowns, as everyone has always acknowledged, are an inherently chaotic last resort. For all the rhetoric of national unity, they come with significant costs. Learning loss due to missing school will disproportionately affect poorer pupils. The costs to mental health will likewise hit the most vulnerable hardest. While the best-off professionals will find it easy to stay home and work by Zoom, others will be asked to come to work, or find work impossible to avoid. And, of course, many continue to fall through the cracks of furlough schemes. (The TUC is urging employers to furlough parents with childcare responsibilities).
Thus, while “big government” has re-entered our economic lives, breaking all the rules of market fundamentalism accepted by a generation of cross-party consensus, that in itself won’t correct built-up injustices. Indeed, quite the opposite. Inequalities could actually rise, and steeply.
Where lockdowns happen, it reflects deeper failings in the architecture of government. In Britain, a legacy of bodging, underinvestment and half-measures can be traced back to Thatcher’s transformation of the state. And it all begins to raise fundamental questions about power and authority. “Come the inevitable inquiry into the events of the past year, it is not only politicians who should carry the can,” Simon Jenkins rightly observes. “All the components of Britain’s government, central and local, should be tested – the constitution as a whole should be under examination.”