Without further restrictions, ‘Freedom Day’ may never come

As has been anticipated since he set an arbitrary date for the ‘final and irreversible’ relaxation of Covid restrictions, thereby raising public hopes in the absence of any tangible evidence that he would be able to deliver, Boris Johnson has finally announced, via the official government method of leaking it to Laura Kuenssberg at 22.00 on a Sunday evening, that the easing of restrictions will now be delayed for a further four weeks to enable more vaccinations to be administered.

Somewhat predictably, the howls of anguish from the anti-woke, anti-snowflake, anti-Marxist, anti-lockdown, anti-mask, anti-vaccine, pro-flag, pro-statue, pro-Brexit, pro-two-world-wars-and-one-world-cup, pro-Tory divorcees of Twitter were, in the wake of this announcement, quite deafening. “We want our freedom back!” they cried. Hashtag I’m Done. Hashtag Enough Is Enough. Hashtag Please Let Me See The Kids, Sharon.

‘Lockdown extension’ trended for several hours as they vented their spleens about the violent oppression of having to wear a mask in Tescos for another four weeks and the blood-curdling brutality of the greater than usual degree of difficulty in obtaining footy tickets. I tried, via the use of some fairly blunt sarcasm, to make the point that we’re not currently in anything that could be correctly described as a ‘lockdown’ as we’re legally allowed to do most things at this point, but I’m not sure it really landed.

That’s not to say, of course, that there aren’t reasons to be angry. If you’ve been anything in the ballpark of ‘conscious’ over the past 18 months, you should be absolutely fucking furious. As is so often the case, however, much of this anger seems to be manifesting for all the wrong reasons.

In February and March 2020, as we watched the carnage unfolding in Italy and elsewhere, we hesitated, prevaricated and delayed. A swift lockdown at that point, together with strict controls on those entering and leaving the country and a working test and trace system, would have left us ideally placed as an island nation to avoid the worst of the pandemic. That’s not mere speculation – Australia and New Zealand have been back to something approaching ‘normal’ for some time now, simply because they acted decisively to halt the spread of the disease.

And ironically, at least some of the responsibility for the fact that we didn’t adopt this course of action lies with the vacuous tits who now spend their Saturdays parading through London with that bellend off ‘Lewis’, the tinfoil-hat-clad brother of a former Labour leader and a woman who filters human excrement for entertainment; demanding an end to restrictions that, for the most part, do not exist. Were it not for the fact that our Prime Minister is far more worried about whether he is personally popular than whether or not a few hundred thousand plebs remain alive, and were it not also for the fact that the very people who now rail against the weaker, more protracted restrictions provided vocal opposition to stronger, swifter but ultimately more short-lived restrictions back in 2020, we might have avoided this calamity.

The same could be said in relation to every step in our disastrous handling of this pandemic. As mistake after mistake has unfolded, the entire process has followed a depressingly familiar cycle:

  1. Cases rise, scientists warn that action is required
  2. There is significant opposition to any restrictions among right-wing commentators and media
  3. Government delays imposing restrictions to avoid negative headlines
  4. Situation becomes untenable and restrictions are finally imposed, weeks too late
  5. Restrictions last far longer than necessary because of earlier delays, leading to public fatigue
  6. When cases start to fall, pressure mounts to relax restrictions
  7. Government relaxes restrictions too early to avoid negative headlines
  8. See 1.

Without this vitriolic opposition from the right-wing press and the honking, anti-science reactionaries of social media, there’s every chance the PM would have acted differently. He is a man whose first and only thought in any given situation is, “How will this benefit me?” He is powered by pure, concentrated selfishness, and if imposing an early, well-managed lockdown would have led to a Daily Mail splash comparing him in favourable terms to Winston Churchill, he’d have executed the order in a fucking heartbeat.

That’s not to absolve the government of any responsibility, of course. The overwhelming majority of the blame rests firmly on their shoulders, because effective leadership sometimes means making unpopular decisions in the short term knowing they will be for the greater good in the longer term. And the most ridiculous thing is, had they taken these difficult decisions at the outset and pre-empted the first (or the second or the third) wave, he might have actually secured his ‘BORIS IS CHURCHILL’ headline in the end.

This short-termist thinking has characterised the government’s approach to Covid throughout, and it’s no coincidence that we not only have one of the worst per capita death tolls on the planet, but have also taken the biggest Covid-related hit to the economy of any country in Europe. Entire industries have been decimated by callous inaction, ministerial indifference and lack of essential financial support, as billions of pounds have been funnelled into the pockets of Conservative Party donors for a test and trace system that’s not fit for purpose, ventilators made out of old hand-dryers and PPE that was never delivered.

As each half-arsed, weeks-too-late lockdown has been lifted weeks too early, some of these industries have never been allowed to reopen, and many hundreds of businesses have now been lost forever. Indeed, one of the most common arguments advanced in the outpouring of terrible grammar that followed the announcement of this latest delay related to the horrific toll the existing restrictions are exacting on those in the hospitality, arts and nightlife industries. All very valid concerns, and we should be angry about that. 

We should be angry, however, not about the personal inconvenience of having to book a table if we want to go to the pub, but that these essential and profitable businesses have been allowed to go to the wall for want of adequate financial support, and that quicker, more decisive action that stayed the course would have rendered this discussion largely moot.

We should be angry that a three-week delay in imposing the first lockdown led to a wave of death and destruction that could have been avoided or mitigated had we acted sooner. We should be angry that £37bn of our money has been sunk into a test and trace system that has never worked. We should be angry that Covid patients were released into care homes without testing, precipitating further avoidable carnage amongst some of the most vulnerable people in our population. We should be angry that many healthcare professionals perished for want of adequate PPE. We should be angry about Eat Out To Help Out. We should be angry that schools and universities were ordered back in September with no plan in place to control the spread of the disease. We should be angry about the ‘get back to work or lose your fucking job’ headlines. We should be angry about scientists’ calls for a lockdown in the autumn going unheeded until it was too late.  We should be angry that this autumn lockdown, like all the others, was lifted too early. We should definitely be angry about fucking Christmas, and the predictable and predicted wave of excess mortality it unleashed for the sake of a BORIS SAVES CHRISTMAS’ headline. We should be angry that, after all that, the same mistakes have been made coming out of this lockdown as with the previous two. And we should be utterly fucking enraged that, for a country that invests so much time and energy into ‘controlling our borders’ as it pertains to desperate people arriving via dinghy seeking a better life, we have been singularly unwilling to ‘control our borders’ in the context of a global pandemic that has claimed the lives of 150,000 of our citizens.

Scientists warned, several weeks ago, of the dangers posed by the Delta variant. They called, time and again, for India, where the variant originated, to be added to the ‘red list’ of countries to which travel was restricted. These calls were ignored for weeks on end because Johnson was desperate for a trade deal photo-op with the Indian PM to draw our noses away from the interminably pungent shit-smell of Brexit. By the time India was eventually added to the red list, the variant in question was already established in the UK. It has since become the dominant variant in the country, accounting for 90% of new cases. It is now growing exponentially, with in excess of 7,000 new cases a day at the time of writing, and is thought to be up to 60% more transmissible than the previous strain (which was 50% more transmissible than the original). Most worryingly of all, the variant is already showing some degree of vaccine resistance.

We now stand at yet another crossroads. Carrying on as we are simply isn’t enough. With the number of new cases doubling every 7-10 days even with the current restrictions in place, we face the possibility that, in a month’s time, we could easily have upwards of 50,000 new cases a day.

It’s at this stage of proceedings that someone will inevitably pipe up with, “But all the older and more vulnerable people are vaccinated, so it doesn’t matter if the cases go up,” but this ignores the fact that millions of people are still only partially vaccinated, and millions more aren’t vaccinated at all. They still run the very real risk of experiencing long-Covid symptoms (or worse) if they contract the disease. But even that’s not the main problem with allowing cases to spiral out of control at this point.

Viruses mutate. It’s what they do. This particular virus has already mutated on many occasions, producing several distinct strains. These mutations occur randomly as the virus replicates. Advantageous (to the virus) mutations are selected for and become more prevalent, while the less beneficial ones die out. It follows, therefore, that if more opportunities exist for the virus to reproduce, the number of mutations will also increase. More mutations overall means a greater chance that one (or more) of those mutations will be advantageous to the virus. So allowing cases to grow unchecked in a partially vaccinated population, where the dominant strain is already highly transmissible and showing some degree of resistance to the vaccine, creates the perfect environment for a variant to emerge that escapes the vaccine completely. I’m sure I don’t need to explain why such an outcome would be very bad news indeed for every human being on the planet.

Keeping transmission as low as humanly possible until a significant proportion of the world’s population are vaccinated would greatly reduce the risk of this apocalyptic scenario unfolding. This means (relatively) short-term restrictions to bring cases as close to zero as possible in this country, monitoring and disrupting new outbreaks as they occur, and strictly controlling who enters and leaves the country until the rest of the world catches up with their vaccination programmes. A full lockdown might not be necessary given the advanced stage of the vaccine programme here, but far greater restrictions than are currently in place will be required to reverse the upward trend in cases.

Further restrictions at this point would undoubtedly be painful for everyone (though that pain could be alleviated considerably with appropriate support in place from the government), but as in March and September and December and April, taking a short term view of this is the worst thing we could possibly do. I hate lockdowns as much as the next person, regardless of what ‘HammersDave84750398’ might assert in my Twitter replies. My mental health has been in the fucking toilet for well over a year now, and I’m desperate to be released back into the wild to go about my homosexual business. But I’m also pragmatic enough to understand that the vaccines are our one long-term ticket out of this unholy mess, and if we blow that, the next eighteen months could make the previous eighteen look like a sunny evening in a socially distanced beer garden.

When no good options remain, we may only choose the least terrible

Lockdowns are shit.

That might seem like a ridiculously obvious thing to say, but there are those out there who seem to think that people exist who think of them as an extended holiday, a little jolly where we get to sit at home in our jammies all day watching Netflix, a chance to bunk off and collect that lovely, free government money, so it bears making this very simple point clear at the outset: lockdowns are fucking shit. They amplify inequality, damage mental health, place vulnerable people at risk, decimate businesses and isolate members of minority communities from the essential support networks on which they rely. They are so perniciously harmful that no one in their right mind would be suggesting any kind of lockdown, much less the strict nationwide lockdown so many are now calling for, if it wasn’t absolutely essential.

There are, of course, ways to mitigate the harms caused by lockdowns: locking down early enough and strictly enough that the duration is kept to an absolute minimum, providing adequate financial support to individuals and businesses affected by the measures, a comprehensive plan to provide distance or blended learning in the hope of minimising the deleterious effects on those in full-time education, effective test, trace and isolate programmes, and clear, honest communication designed to bring the public along with any unavoidable disruption to their lives, rights and freedoms. Not ripping the arse out of mental health provision for a full decade prior to the commencement of any such restrictions might also be helpful, but here we are.

The sad fact is, our government has singularly failed to adopt any of these mitigation strategies since the very start of this pandemic. Both the first and second lockdowns took place weeks after scientists were calling for them to be implemented. Financial support has been deliberately – maliciously, even – inadequate, with many people cut adrift from the limited help available, and the government having to be shamed into doing the bare fucking basics like feeding hungry children, on two separate occasions, by a footballer. Eat out to help out, the rush to reopen schools and universities, the steadfast unwillingness to close them again even after it became clear that they were a significant source of community transmission, the threats to ‘get back to work or lose your jobs’, the persistence with the tier system of local restrictions that scientists warned would be ineffective before it was introduced and which was later shown to be just that, the staggering, face-melting stupidity of the Christmas super-spreader event; this government has failed at every turn to protect the public from the virus, and to minimise the need for, and duration of, further lockdowns.

The situation with schools is particularly worrying. And again, before I go any further, let me be abundantly clear: school ‘closures’ are also shit. I used the word ‘closures’ in inverted commas because the reality is that the schools have never been ‘closed’. They have always been open to the children of key workers and vulnerable children, which is as it should be. But to keep them open to all students at this stage of the pandemic is an act of criminal negligence that will serve only to increase transmission and cause thousands more deaths.

Of course no one wants schools to close (or, more accurately, to move to distance learning for an extended period of time). My son, who is very vocally Not A Fan of school, would still rather be there than separated from his friends for months on end, learning from a computer in his bedroom. During the first lockdown, he became progressively more miserable and withdrawn, despite our best efforts to prevent this, and it was heartbreaking to see. He returned to physical school attendance in September, and from a social point of view, it was obviously a huge improvement. We took him back into a remote learning environment last November when it became clear that everything was starting to go very badly sideways again, and although we took this decision with his consent, he still fucking hates it. The thing is, however, he hates it considerably less than he would hate me or his mother, who both have underlying conditions, becoming seriously ill or dying.

Closing schools and universities now is a no-brainer. It’s a shitty, horrible option that is still considerably better than the shittier, even more horrible alternative.

We now stand at a precipice. A variant of Covid somewhere between 50 and 70% more transmissible than the original strain is now tearing across the country unchecked. The graph of confirmed infections is more or less a straight, vertical line and hospital admissions have already exceeded the level of the last peak in April. Due to a better understanding of the disease and greater awareness of how to treat it, the number of daily deaths hasn’t quite caught up to the horrendous levels of the first wave, but they’re not far off, and they will get there, whatever we do next. A full, strict, UK-wide lockdown will almost certainly be insufficient to prevent a recurrence of the horrors of last spring, and we could still reach the stage where the NHS is unable to treat some Covid patients, even with those measures in place. This will also have a knock-on effect to routine care and other critical care, causing an increase in excess ‘non-Covid’ deaths as a result.

The strain on NHS staff now is unimaginable. Many are off sick, either with Covid-19 or related exhaustion from having to work 80+ hours a week over an extended period to cover for their stricken colleagues. Some are reporting conditions akin to, or virtually identical to, PTSD, and beds, together with the human beings needed to staff those beds, are quickly running out. All of which is likely to create a domino effect that will claim tens or even hundreds of thousands of lives. This remains true even if we act now. Today.

If we do not act now, if we delay or prevaricate or dither for another moment, we risk this disease getting completely, irretrievably out of control. Every day we fail to act is another day where more than 50,000 people (that we know about) contract the virus. Given that, in most areas, you can only book a Covid test if you are displaying symptoms, the real number is almost certainly significantly higher. And with the R-rate well above 1, this 50,000 symptomatic cases will grow to 100,000 and beyond in a very short space of time. If the hospitalisations and deaths grow proportionately alongside that, we will be in a very dark place indeed.

We have a vaccine available. Two, in fact. That is the only good news to emerge out of any of this, but vaccines alone are not sufficient to prevent what undoubtedly awaits us should we fail to take the drastic action needed to reduce the unrestrained spread of this lethal new variant. The government must act now, in partnership with devolved administrations, to implement a full lockdown of the entire UK, to move schools and universities online, to ban most flights in or out of the country, to close all non-essential retail, hospitality and entertainment venues, and, crucially, to provide the support, financial or otherwise, needed for us to emerge safely at the other side when the vaccine rollout is complete.

It’s going to be shit because, as I think I mentioned, lockdowns are really, really fucking shit. But when you’re faced with an inescapable choice between a kick in the balls/minge (delete as appropriate) or a bullet in the head, all you can do is spread your legs, brace yourself, and look forward to the day when you’ve recovered from the damage in a way that would not be possible if you opted for the alternative.