Looking back at data on UK Covid deaths over the past six months, the figures have remained relatively stable. Despite predictions of collapse, the NHS has coped and the difficulties seen are the corollary of staff absences, not an overwhelming influx of Covid patients. Accordingly, both Boris Johnson’s critics and supporters are proclaiming that his ‘gamble’ of limited restrictions has paid off. While the essence of this appraisal rings true, it is an oversight to suggest that the Government’s actions were a gamble at all.
The scientific bodies guiding the UK’s response to Covid-19 have played an imperative role in managing the pandemic over the past two years. The likes of Professor Chris Whitty and Professor Sir Jonathan Van-Tam have become trusted public servants and their duty will not soon be forgotten. To ensure the continuation of expert advice, pundits should rightly enjoy the capacity to advise without fear of reprisal. Nevertheless, the nation’s gratitude has gradually begun to prevail over pragmatic caution and the rightful scepticism about allowing unelected officials to dictate our policies and freedoms.
Good governance can only stem from robust policies that are not narrowly informed but scientific advisers guide the Government having assessed only one side of the coin. Johnson was thus right to have balanced their concern against his responsibility for economic wellbeing and the protection of civil liberties.
In fact, a staggering Twitter exchange from December between Spectator Editor Fraser Nelson and SAGE’s chair of a modelling sub-committee, Graham Medley, disclosed this worrying truth. it was revealed that SAGE exclusively models worst-case scenarios that require restrictions, omitting just-as-likely scenarios that would otherwise necessitate no further controls. Adding to the list of considerations that much of the public have been fear-mongered into ignoring, modelling does not equate to probability, but to possibility.
Moreover, despite evidence presented by doctors and the data in South Africa, suggesting that Omicron was much milder than previous variants and could be beneficial by providing added protection without cause for alarm, their expertise was disregarded in favour of a much darker narrative. Professor Chris Whitty’s declaration that we could not extrapolate the data from South Africa and apply it to the UK was reasonable yet claims such that “there are several things we don’t know about Omicron, but all the things we do know are bad” were misleading.
Such statements had lasting impacts in the minds of Brits and fed into a narrative that advocated for greater controls on our freedoms. Whether high profile advisers and restriction fanatics such as Nicola Sturgeon ignored the South African advice on account of dogmatic beliefs, xenophobia or political posturing is for the electorate to decide. Regardless, there was little evidence to suggest that a clampdown on our freedoms was necessary.
As a stable, democratic union of nations we pride our way of governance on making informed decisions and acting proportionately. Hence, even had Omicron progressed in a way that would have caused greater devastation, the pre-emptive and impulse actions of the Scottish government contradict those principles and open the door to further draconian policymaking without cause.
Not only do the actions of Sturgeon and her sympathetic counterparts throw into disrepute the tenets of liberal-democratic governance, but there is also untold harm from Covid restrictions. From just some of the evidence that has been garnered, we know that 1.5 million women in the UK have missed breast cancer screenings, higher rates of depression have been reported nationwide and that within a year of the first lockdown there was a 7 per cent growth in domestic abuse crimes reported to the police.
At first, our government and citizens were acting in an unprecedented time of emergency in which vital information was not readily available and our civic duty bound us in readily forgoing our freedoms to protect one another. As time has passed, we have procured effective vaccines, are experiencing milder strains of coronavirus and have become aware that measures taken in the name of the greater good have had devastating ripple effects. As such, we must be prepared to question the continuation and reinstatement of restrictions, especially when the evidence for their necessity is limited.
Despite having resisted calls over Christmas for lockdown-style restrictions, Johnson is not blameless in this game. Should masks have been mandated for school children when the evidence for their effectiveness in educational settings is inconclusive while their adverse effects on learning, particularly for children with disabilities, is known? In the absence of sufficient cost-benefit analysis, the justification for coronavirus controls does not align with our long-established values.
Moreover, those so ready to lead the public into endless lockdowns and restrictions drastically reduce the capacity for those in power to invoke such measures when the situation demands it. It should come as no surprise that restriction-fatigue is most harmful when measures are unequivocally beneficial and necessary.
With the benefit of hindsight, the landscape of decision-making and the failures of governments during the pandemic become clear. As we continue to grapple with living with coronavirus, it is imperative that officials are held to account, our liberal-democratic principles are safeguarded, and we do not succumb to fear in place of reason.
The resolve of England’s government to avoid draconian restrictions over the Christmas period has proved both pragmatic and judicious. In the coming months, the electorate must resist unfounded infringements on their liberties while ensuring they abide when necessary and readily accept vaccines that they are privileged to be offered.