LOVE HIM OR LOATHE HIM, if Tony Blair is anything he is the perfect weathervane for what the establishment he now is a card-carrying member of is planning next. When Tony Blair speaks you can expect to hear what he has said being advocated by other politicians or influential commentators within the month.
Be it Britain or the international stage, Tony Blair still has considerable influence, otherwise governments, foundations and corporations would not ask him at great expense what he or his researchers think.
So when the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change says there is only “Three months to save the NHS” and we in the UK need to “be prepared to” reintroduce the enforcement by law of masks on public transport and in confined spaces – you know, firstly the soft sell doesn’t actually mean ‘be prepared to’ – it really means ‘the Government must introduce…’.
Secondly, you know that within weeks other believers in masks and other non-medical treatments will be joining Blair and calling for such a mandate to be introduced.
Is this important? Hell, yes! We can all see what is going on here, not least because it is in plain sight but also because the Blair Institute has a record for advocating stringent suppression interventions longer than your arm and it’s all there on its own website.
Calls for all sorts of restrictions, mandates and social distancing impositions – from mask wearing to Covid Passes – have been promoted at various points in the pandemic. Always well intentioned of course, to ‘get the UK ahead of the Covid curve’ – yet often dealing with problems stored up by earlier interventions (such as a further Covid wave following-on naturally from the previous Blair-supported restrictions that had only suppressed the Covid spread until later. Then ‘later’ arrived.)
What was striking about the Blair call for reintroducing mask mandates now – to save the NHS – was the complete lack of self-awareness around its justification and packaging.
It was Blair who famously entered the last weeks of his general election campaign in 1997 with the slogan “only 24 hrs to save the NHS” and it undoubtedly struck a chord. A good many of the British public thought, ‘yeah, maybe he’s right’ and it became one of the reasons to vote Labour that year.
Now, fast forward 25 years and it’s not “24 hours to save the NHS” it’s “three months to save the NHS” – and even that isn’t original – because Ed Miliband said it back in 2013. Indeed, one of the problems of the narrative of having to save the NHS, especially from a Winter crisis is that is has been said practically every year for at least the last ten.
That’s not to say the NHS is not under a great deal of pressure at Winter, that is sadly a given, but as a reason to justify the reintroduction of restrictions and mandates such as mask wearing? If such an argument is accepted then it follows all sorts of restrictions could be reintroduced on an annual basis if the NHS management judges it will face intense pressure, especially when backed up by politicians and media commentators clamouring for ‘something to be done’.
In fact mask reintroduction is already happening surreptitiously, with some health authorities going rogue and demanding patients and staff wear masks when inside clinics and hospitals, while some schools have been doing the same for pupils and teachers. So far these impositions do not have the force of law, but their advocates do try to throw their weight around and it is especially easy to make pupils comply through shaming and adult pressure. Here’s what the Blair Institute press release stated:
“(People) across the UK are waiting for elective treatments, accident-and-emergency (A&E) waiting times are almost at an all-time high and cancer targets, among others, are not being met. More than 300,000 people are on the waiting list for cancer treatment in England, with nearly 40,000 waiting more than 62 days after a GP referral for suspected cancer.
“At times of high Covid-19 transmission, or when there is an elevated general risk (such as when a new variant emerges), or a higher likelihood of severe outcomes (when an outbreak coincides with the flu season), the government should be prepared to reinstate the mask requirements that were in place.
“This would mean mandatory mask wearing on public transport and most indoor public venues (excluding hospitality) during the winter. The Government should reserve the capability to activate such a plan quickly, if necessary.”
How brazen to use the horrifying pressures on the NHS as its rationale. Clearly the Blair Institute feels no responsibility for the growth in waiting lists facing critical NHS services after continually advocating restrictions and controls – showing a real disconnect from what has happened.
How long before the exception it suggests be given to mask-wearing in hospitality settings comes under threat because of heightening demand pressures?
How long before those restrictions and non-medical interventions are not enough and have to be followed up by lockdowns at Christmas and beyond?
We have been here before, we know how it plays out – and we also know these initial impositions do not work and only build up further, often worse, problems for the future.
As we continually saw during 2020-21, there is no consideration from the Blair Institute of the economic and health damage of its proposed measures, no sense of an alternative perspective. And yet we are seeing almost daily new evidence of the damage that restrictions have done. There is no excuse now, if there ever was, for demanding restrictions without attempting to assess their possible damage. To do so repeats one of the great mistakes of recent years.
‘But it can’t hurt anyone to wear a mask,’ comes the riposte from those who want restrictions reimposed. But that’s not true. There is now a substantial body of robust evidence that masks may actually increase the spread of infection. If you’ve studied developments properly – as the Blair Institute surely must have done before its high-profile intervention – and controlling infection were your sole aim, would you not be aware of this evidence and make reference to it, even if only to counter it?
Neither is it true that mask mandates do no harm. For example, they engender fear, contributing to an already critical mental health crisis. They have a cost, which matters to people on tight budgets during a cost-of-living crisis. They are particularly bad for children and their education.
Above all, they represent the first click of the ratchet that will move us back into increasingly authoritarian restrictions. Their value to those who want the measures of 2020-21 back, for whatever reason, is that they fire the starting gun on a procession of ever-tightening controls. How? Because whenever we leave our homes and meet others, they send a powerful subliminal message that we are being stalked by a terrifying disease requiring extreme measures.
Why on earth, you may ask, would anyone want restrictions back? But many people made fortunes from them. For example, they brought billions to online companies and to broadcast media owners whose audiences soared and along with it advertising revenue. It is hardly surprising that some want to keep their golden goose alive.
The new government has to resist the clamour for the return of powers that would provide authorities with a “quick response” –no doubt without scrutiny – and instead determine managerial decisions and the direction of funding that will tackle the NHS backlogs and Winter pressures that are always with us. Resorting to masks and other restrictions is not an answer – whether Tony Blair is behind it or not.
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Brian Monteith is a former member of the Scottish and European Parliaments and managing editor of the Recovery blog.