We can’t carry on like this. We can’t keep resurrecting restrictions every time a new Covid variant emerges. We can’t keep suspending certain liberties whenever this blasted virus mutates. Somehow we have got stuck in a spiral of doom and kneejerk authoritarianism, and we urgently need to find a way out of it.
People, of course, will say it’s only mask-wearing in shops and on buses. It’s only a PCR test if you’re coming back from overseas. It’s only mandatory quarantine if you come into contact with someone infected with the Omicron variant. These are hardly onerous regulations. And Boris says they’ll be temporary. They will be reviewed in three weeks’ time. So calm down, yeah?
This misses the point. First, because if the past 20 months tell us anything, it is that temporary Covid regulations have a nasty habit of lasting for longer than we were told they would. Lockdowns linger, emergency laws stick around, Sadiq Khan tells Londoners to carry on masking up on public transport regardless of what central government says.
One Sage adviser – professor Susan Michie, unsurprisingly – says social distancing should last forever. So, yes, we have good reason to fear that these three weeks of fairly mild regulations to tackle the Omicron variant will morph into something more.
Secondly, and more importantly, there’s the question of what impact all this sudden shunting back into restrictions is having on society and the individual. It is incredibly psychologically disorientating to know you could wake up on any given day and have fewer freedoms than you did the day before. It makes it impossible to plan ahead and even to live as a properly free citizen in the here and now.
Forget the actual restrictions themselves. It is this permanent threat of restrictions, this knowledge that liberty could be snatched away at a moment’s notice, that is having a palpably destructive impact on the culture of freedom in the UK right now.
The government’s response to Omicron confirms that the Damocles sword of Covid authoritarianism hangs over us still, and presumably will for a while to come. This eerie culture of imminent regulation has given rise to a situation where we never quite know where we stand.
Not knowing if you can afford that trip abroad after all, once PCR tests are factored in. Not knowing what parts of the world might suddenly be declared off-limits. Not knowing if we’ll be able to visit far-flung family members. Not knowing if Christmas will go ahead or be cancelled. Not knowing if we will soon be told to work from home, and if this might mean some people losing their jobs. Not knowing if hospitality will stay mask-free or even stay open.
We just don’t know. Government underestimates at its peril how dispiriting it is to live in a society where, come tomorrow, you don’t quite know what you’ll be allowed to do, where you’ll be allowed to go, who you’ll be allowed to hug. It makes people feel that they are no longer the masters of their own destinies. And they aren’t, thanks to the always present shadow of regulation.
The government and many of its expert advisers seem to be hooked on worst-case-scenario thinking. Yes, there is still much we don’t know about Omicron. But there are reasons to be relatively optimistic that it won’t whack Britain in the same way previous Covid outbreaks did.
For one, more than 90 per cent of British adults are thought to have Covid antibodies. Also, one of the South African doctors who first spotted Omicron says the symptoms in patients have been mostly mild so far. We should remain alert, of course, but all those doom-mongering headlines and the rush to restrict everyday life seem over-the-top – driven more by panic than by a cool, measured analysis of the situation.
There will be new variants of Covid for a long time to come. This is what viruses do; they mutate. Panicking in response to every variant is a recipe for ceaseless doom, for suspension after suspension of normality and liberty.
We have fortified ourselves against Covid in an incredibly effective way, through the vaccination programme. So now let us, behind this shield of vaccination, get back to life as we knew it. Some of us will get ill, of course. I hate to break it to you but people have always got sick, and they always will. It is not the government’s job to protect us from falling ill.
We have to stop viewing each other, and ourselves, as potential vectors of disease, as patients in waiting. It is diminishing us. It is turning us from citizens who should be free to make decisions and weigh up risks as we see fit into risky creatures who must be controlled. Right now, I’m more scared of this manmade whirlwind of distrust and dread than I am of Omicron.
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