Almost one year and three months since the first lockdown of 2020, we are long overdue for an end to restrictions. In the famous words of Prime Minister Boris Johnson on 23 March last year, “I can assure you that we will keep these restrictions under constant review. We will look again in three weeks, and relax them if the evidence shows we are able to.”
How quickly those three weeks turned into three or four months, and threatens to mutate into three years, if current plans continue. Despite the lockdown being scheduled to end completely this month, the right for the Government to continue social distancing measures has been extended in law to October. Talk of vaccine passports and regular testing, even long after June 2021, never seems to disappear. The programme for a ‘new normal’ goes far beyond simple health and safety protocols.
On the 21st of this month, the Government should, as promised, remove all legal limits on social contact and lift restrictions on large events. A society that conducts hundreds of funerals and no baptisms or weddings clearly faces a dire imbalance.
Morally and electorally, the Conservative Party has to end the charade of perpetual lockdown. It is neither right nor popular to continue to outlaw the freedom of families and friends to meet and plan big social events. That people can gather for cultural, religious and family celebrations is the lifeblood of our civilization.
Despite its clear benefits, the virtual world is no substitute for real life. As a businessman, I can see the need for stronger communication systems moving forward. Zoom offers many options for professional teams spread across the country, and millions have saved time, energy and money working from home. But without physical meetings, gatherings and events, business cannot develop and new ideas emerge. Networking, sharing pints with colleagues and friends, and hosting events are just as necessary as sharing intellectual content. If the Government backtracks on the long-established reopening date of June 21, society and business will suffer a damaging blow.
With hindsight, we can see that there were 35 million fewer GP appointments in the first ten months of the pandemic than the previous year, down by 12 per cent from 287.2m to 251.4m. Half of adults and over two thirds of young people experienced mental health decline in 2020, while suicide calls rose by 27 per cent at the start of the November lockdown. The Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine has found that the average age of death from Covid-19 is 82.4 years vs. 81.5 from all other causes.
Furlough can be no excuse for extending the lockdown legislation indefinitely, as it is just as unsustainable as the lockdowns. According to the Chancellor, the cost of the lockdown to the Government is a staggering £407bn. Each day of lockdown costs about £1bn, with the ineffective Test and Trace system notching up a bill of £37bn. As a sign of the Government’s overreaction to early pandemic fears, four of England’s seven Nightingale Hospitals were closed at the end of March after barely being used, having cost the taxpayer £500m.
A devastating 700,000 jobs have been lost across UK, and the economy has shrunk by 10 per cent, the largest fall in more than 300 years. At least 50,000 Oxford Street jobs will disappear post-lockdown according to the New West End Company, a lobby group representing 600 firms.
Although very few people are now dying from Covid-19, even if the numbers were going up, the Government must factor in other variables to the equation, besides an obsession with case numbers and data. Among these variables are people’s essential social, psychological and financial needs, the freedom of citizens to meet each other in full responsibility for the consequences, the legal right to protest their leaders’ decisions, and recognising the red line of authoritarianism which no Government should ever cross.
A core value of the Conservatives is to acknowledge that often the best way the Government can help its citizens is by stepping back and guiding processes of development rather than imposing them. The Tories’ moral legitimacy and electoral success will nosedive if further damaging lockdowns are enforced, at the national or local level. Health and freedom go together, and if the last fifteen months have taught us anything, it is that sacrificing one to preserve the other could leave us with neither.